Wednesday, 5 September 2012

BLACKBIRD - TIFF 2012 - Review By Greg Klymkiw

Blackbird (2013) ****
Dir. Jason Buxton
Starring: Connor Jessup, Alexia Fast, Alex Ozerov, Cory Arnold, Michael Buie, Tanya Clarke

Review By Greg Klymkiw

God Bless, Charles Dickens. Even his more detestable characters are often blessed with powers of analysis and reason that exposes the humanity inherent in all. Take, for example, the venerable constabulary beadle Mr. Bumble in "Oliver Twist". Presiding over the orphanage and workhouse, he's the famous literary personage whom the waif-like title character pleads - holding his empty gruel-bowl forward, "Please, Sir, may I have some more?" "More!!??" Bumble bellows incredulously. Aside from administering a variety of nasty corporal punishments and personally taking to the streets to sell "bad boys", Dickens places the following words of wisdom in his mouth:

"... the law is a ass- a idiot. If that's the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience- by experience."

Bumble is, of course, referring to Mr. Brownlow's climactic line of questioning in the great book and looking for any way to get out of a sticky wicket he's placed himself in, Bumbles blames his wife. Brownlow asserts that Bumble is more guilty than his wife since "... the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction."

To this specific charge, Bumble is quite right. The law IS an ass! So it has always been and so it always will be - this "ass", this "bachelor" woefully lacking "experience".

Watching Blackbird, the feature length debut by writer-director Jason Buxton, I could not help be reminded of Bumble's words - especially since the mere act of viewing this fine and gripping drama inspired such anger and frustration within me over a system that often jerks its knee in defence of the status quo and has little use for free expression and those things that fall outside the assumption of (purported) normalcy.

How many of us in childhood have experienced the teasing and bullying of the supposedly "normal" amongst us and wondered, even as kids, why the absolute lowest common denominator amongst our peers and "betters" was something to aspire to? Why must we be like everyone else? Why must we be cogs in a machine that many consider to be humanity? Isn't humanity rooted in being oneself? Must we suffer derision - not just as kids, but as adults - taking little interest in the inanities of the water cooler conversations every morning at the office?

Aren't THEY, the "normal ones" the assholes?

Well, yes. THEY are! Unfortunately, we have to put up with them and seek solace in our individuality and search high and low for the like-minded until we find them. Unfortunately, in the wake of the massacres at Columbine, Montreal, Newtown, Aurora and Boston - ANYONE even slightly outside of the norm is viewed with suspicion by the general populace, any ACTIONS (most often involving alternative self-expression within the form of art) is viewed by the lunkheads of society as a threat and the law in such cases?

It's an ass.

This is the horrendous place where Sean (Connor Jessup) finds himself in Buxton's always compelling Blackbird. Sporting a Goth-lite look, obsessed with ultra-metal musical styling and blessed/cursed with a talent for writing, he's been booted from the city by his status-hungry Mom (Tanya Clarke) into the care of her ex-hubby and his long-estranged Dad (Michael Buie), a straight-up man's man in the country who loves bagging game, chugging a good brewski and relaxing to the cathode ray flicker of Hockey Night in Canada. Sean's new home life could be worse, though. Dad seems like a genuinely nice guy who desperately wants to connect with his son and offers a fair bit of room for the kid to move.

Alas, this is a rural community and Sean must contend with the dolts he's surrounded by at school. (This is no cliche. I had to eventually pull my own child from a small town school due to the bullying, misogyny, sexism and overall stupidity of her peers and so many of the teachers and administrators of the school.) What's truly valued amongst these drooling knuckle-draggers is being a jock (and the young ladies must be obedient, compliant and sexual). God help you if you aren't. And jocks absolutely despise kids like Sean. He's picked-on and pulverized by these morons and viewed by everyone as a freak.

His only friend is the most gorgeous babe in the school, Deanna (Alexia Fast). They clearly form a special bond, but she is forced to hide her attraction to Sean since she's also dating the star jock of the school Cory (Craig Arnold), one of Sean's prime tormentors. And let it be said that guys like Cory are a pathetic dime-a-dozen once they leave high school. They've got hockey pucks for brains and unless they're really exceptional in their sporting activities, they're eventual mantra will be (to quote a line from Slap Shot), "Fucking Chrysler plant! Here I come!"

Try explaining that to a kid like Sean - or anyone. They're years away from recognizing and realizing this. (Ironically, though, it's losers like Cory who form the majorities in our world and continue their bullying indirectly, through their bone-headed lack of imagination, kowtowing to the Status Quo and voting for the pawns of the New World Order like Georgie Bush (Sr. and Jr.) and Stevie Harper.)

Poor Sean is so desperate that a well-meaning guidance counsellor suggests he get his frustrations out on paper - he is, after all a burgeoning writer, and where better to express one's pain than in the realm of fiction? Makes sense to me.

Unfortunately, artistic expression is the beginning of a living nightmare for Sean. His online writings are taken as "uttering threats" and he's incarcerated in "juvie" by the "ass" of law to - I kid you not - await trial. Eventually, he's faced with an even more idiotic decision on the part of the narrow-minded inbred society of Man: plead guilty and be free. Plead not guilty and "lose".

Every step of the way Buxton grips the audience. Though not quite as dark and morbid as it could/should have been, it's impossible to take one's eyes off the screen. It's a superb narrative - designed to both reel us in, drag us through the muck and keep us affixed to the hook - no matter how much we thrash in protest over the situation we (via Sean's POV) find ourselves in. Solid, intelligent direction and a perfect cast are the delicious cherries on the sundae of a superbly wrought screenplay.

Having to experience the lack of understanding on the part of even those who believe in Sean angers us, since his personal expression is what leads to his pariah status in this backwards community. Even worse is seeing grown adults just hoping he'll lie and admit guilt - thinking he will ultimately better off, but also to remove the inconvenience this causes them. All this because a creative kid's writings are perceived - not as fiction, but genuine threats. Shiver me timbers, he's going to kill us all. Hell, maybe a good many of them deserve to be culled, but Sean isn't going to be the one to do it. It'll be their government that will create a fake war to make money for a few rich guys so young men can go off and think they're fighting to the death for truth, justice and freedom.

Beating down those we don't understand and then punishing them is just too prevalent in our world. Thematically, Buxton's film works hand in hand with both the narrative and the superbly etched characters. His mise-en-scène betrays what must have been a relatively modest budget - the world he creates feels lived in. Buxton is blessed with a great production design and camera team - the antiseptic qualities of both the school and the juvenile detention centre contrast beautifully with the bucolic countryside and genuine down-home warmth of the home Sean's Dad lives in. Especially impressive is the cutting which always moves the fine coverage forward, but at a pace that's always just short of the proverbial Col. Kurtz "snail crawling along the edge of a straight razor". This doesn't mean it's slow or tedious in any way shape or form, it captures rural life to a "T" and most importantly creates a creepy crawly feeling throughout - especially the sequences in the juvie centre where we get a sense of just how time passes within such institutions.

The tiniest of false notes creeps in here. I couldn't help but feel that the film shies away from the sexual abuse within such centres which, I think in the case of someone like Sean, would have been constant. Aside from taunts and beatings, I know from numerous sources that spent time in such institutions that people like him become cum receptacles - not just from fellow inmates, but in many cases from staff and even administrators. (This never really ended with the Catholics, folks. It's pretty endemic across the board.) Why the film doesn't take this extra step, is a mystery to me - especially given a subplot involving the juvie centre's prime bully who has an almost retaliatory need to extract sexual abuse etched ever-so deeply in his face.

I suppose this is a bit of a nitpick, but, I think a fair one. On the flipside, though, I often and genuinely felt the same sort of dread and frustration I experienced when I first saw Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man. If Blackbird falls short of the kind of sickeningly harrowing experience delivered by the Master of Suspense, it's not reason enough to complain too much. Blackbird flirts with the surface of Hitch and this is a damn fine stone for any first time filmmaker to skip - so much so one can hardly wait for Buxton's next film and hope he'll fulfil the promise displayed here to completely toss us with abandon into hot coals.

"Blackbird" premieres at TIFF 2012.