The Lesser Blessed (2012) ***
Dir. Anita Doron
Starring: Joel Nathan Evans, Benjamin Bratt, Tamara Podemski, Chloe Rose, Kiowa Gordon, Adam Butcher
Review By Greg Klymkiw
A knee-jerk response might be to say we've seen all this before.
An Aboriginal teenage boy (Joel Nathan Evans) of the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation lives with his widowed Mom (Tamara Podemski) in a tiny village in the Northwest Territories. His late Dad was a violent, abusive monster and the boy carries the physical disfigurement of an especially harrowing event from the relatively recent past, as well as the emotional scars, the latter of which he shares with his withdrawn Mom. Her boyfriend (Benjamin Bratt) is a handsome, brooding, but kindly man who bears his own wounds of the past and often escapes conflict by disappearing deep into the bush.
High school for our young hero is fraught with a combination of loneliness and bullying whilst harbouring a deep crush on a beautiful, vivacious, popular and seemingly unattainable teenage girl (Chloe Rose). The bullying, mostly from a young thug (Adam Butcher) who shares an equally abusive past, becomes less frequent when the protagonist is befriended by a new kid in town, a hunky, dreamy tough guy (Kiowa Gordon).
It's a mixed blessing for our main character. Though he has a new friend, the gal of his dreams naturally falls for the magnificent specimen of manhood who takes him under his wing. And, of course, there is the crushing weight of the past - truths must be confronted if freedom - real freedom - is to be attained.
So yes, on the surface one might assume this is a glorified after-school special or worse, an Aboriginal John Hughes movie.
"One", however, would assume wrongly.
Narrative is an odd duck because, in a sense, there are no real new stories - what makes things fresh is that magical property one discovers in both the telling and the details. This is what The Lesser Blessed has in spades. Director Anita Doron succeeds magnificently in capturing a unique world that is at once indigenous to Canada's northernmost regions and yet, in its exploration of isolation yields a tale with universal qualities.
Anyone who has experienced life in Canada's most barren regions will be startled by the sense of place in this movie. There isn't a single image - interior or exterior - that isn't infused with the strange, remote and terrible beauty of life in this part of the world. A combination of Doron's eye, superb cinematography and truly exquisite production design all lend themselves to the creation of this dichotomous environment. As well, the natural rhythms of life in the north - in the unfolding of time and events, the cadence of the verbal delivery amongst the populace and even down to the very manner in which people physically move and carry themselves is so spot-on that the movie managed to transport me to every great memory and feeling of living and/or having lived in similar isolation.
A good part of this is inherent in the great range of performances. Joel Nathan Evans in the lead does not seem at all like a natural actor, but it's precisely this quality that allows us IN to this character - especially since he's surrounded by a variety of flamboyant performances from Rose, Gordon and Butcher - he's like the straight man. He let's us see the world and those around him the way he sees it - not necessarily, or at least not always via his point of view, but because there is such a raw, natural quality to his work.
There is one role in the film that could have been delivered with by-the-numbers histrionics, but Tamara Podemski as our hero's Mom is brilliantly understated to the point of heartbreak - this wonderful actress's smallest gestures or in many cases, "non"-gestures, are as riveting as they are deeply and profoundly moving. This is the kind of finely wrought performance that some might overlook because it is so great.
The revelation, at least for me, is Benjamin Bratt in the role of the Mom's boyfriend and our hero's eventual surrogate Dad. As I've watched almost no television since 1982, it seems like I've missed much of this veteran actor's most prolific (and possibly best) work, but I found myself so drawn to his commanding presence in the film that all I kept wondering is why isn't this guy a movie star on the same level as some of the great ruggedly handsome actors from 70s movies? His line deliveries were surprisingly "Canadian" (yes, there is a distinctly Canadian "accent") and frankly, the first time I saw the film I'll admit to having heard of Benjamin Bratt, but I didn't associate him with the role he was playing. All I thought at the time was: "WHO IS THIS GUY? HE'S FUCKING AMAZING!" Once I Googled him and realized what I was dealing with, I still kind of felt the same way. I immediately began imagining him in a variety of imaginary 70s-style movies and wondered when the fuck Quentin Tarantino was going to put this guy in a great role in one of his movies.
Well, QT - you lose. Anita Doron beat you to the punch. In any event, though I have no intention of ever watching Miss Congeniality again, I can hardly wait to dive into a few of his feature film appearances to refresh my appreciation of his clear talent, but he's also appeared in some indie pictures I've yet to see.
The Lesser Blessed is ultimately a film heavy on mood and tone and I'm happy to say that it works beautifully on this front since these elements go a long way in capturing the thematic underpinnings of the tale. There are a few items that don't work for me, though.
I'd have preferred the film to have no narration at all. What little there is of it - and it is mercifully sparse - occurs at the beginning and end, but it felt like it was going out of its way to tell me things I already knew or sensed in a kind of on-point way.
I also wasn't sure about the structural use of the main character's past tragic events as this slow build-up to a big reveal - I think that knowing early on what the precise details of the tragedy were would have instead shifted the flashback stuff into a kind of repeated visual and emotional punctuation of what haunted him. (And I've not read the book, nor did I read any reviews prior to seeing the movie, but I pretty much knew what had happened to him really early in the game and was occasionally frustrated with this storytelling trope that to me, always seems a bit lazy and overused.)
My final nitpick is the score. At times, it felt spare in the way many scores in low budget films feel, while at other times, I found it overbearing. On a second viewing of the film I re-imagined it with only snatches of source music and no formal score whatsoever (and in its place, more of a soundscape reflecting the natural environment and inner life of the main character). Given that many scenes are shot in a gorgeous "floaty-cam" styled handheld and that many of the film's details in terms of locale and setting seemed so real, I'm pretty convinced this would have worked quite beautifully.
All that said, none of these elements detracted from my overall enjoyment of the film, but because so much of the picture is so good, I was occasionally going a bit nutty when elements were often falling short of a kind of greatness that seemed entirely attainable. This, ultimately, is what distinguishes The Lesser Blessed, though. Far too many films are satisfied with filling ephemeral voids and/or needs of audiences (as usually perceived by the boneheaded middlemen green-lighting pictures the world over), but Doron's film is always striving for greatness - true, real and pure greatness.
That's what separates genuine filmmakers from the hacks and poseurs. The Lesser Blessed is definitely worth seeing, but as she acquits herself solidly with this movie, I'm especially looking forward to more pictures from Doron (and, uh, of course... Mr. Bratt!).
"The Lesser Blessed" is available on a variety of home entertainment formats from Monterey Media, the very cool and visionary company south of the 49th. You can order your copy from Monterey right now. YOU CAN EVEN BUY THIS VERSION FROM AMAZON.CA AS AN IMPORT FOR AN EXCELLENT PRICE!!! In Canada, E-One distributes, but it doesn't appear to be available until September as per the following screen capture as of today, July 1, 2013.