Thursday, 14 April 2016

ACROSS THE LINE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Hockey, Crime and Racial Divides in Halifax

Two brothers. One's a pimp. The other's a new NHL star.

Across the Line (2015)
Dir. Director X
Scr. Floyd Kane
Starring: Stephan James, Sarah Jeffery, Shamier Anderson,
Lanette Ware, Steven Love, Denis Theriault, Cara Ricketts

Review By Greg Klymkiw

In the movies, racial violence and hatred has almost always seemed like the domain of urban concrete jungles in cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and, among others, Detroit.

But in Halifax, Nova Scotia?

We're talking a big, old small town in Eastern Canada with fiddle players on every corner. The bustling metropolis of Metro Toronto has seen several Canadian films (like the classic Rude) dealing with the African diaspora in the land of Mounties and Beavers, but it's never seemed as mean-spiritedly infused with the kind of roiling racism just looking to explode in violence as the burgh detailed in Across the Line.

The picture focuses on Mattie Slaughter (Stephan James), a hot young hockey forward on the verge of a major N.H.L. deal whose rise to the top is affected by said racism in the seemingly quaint seaside Halifax Harbour and surrounding environs. Add to this a pressure cooker of challenges, many of which are placed in the path of any young man on the verge of sports superstardom, but for a Black kid in a tough school in a backwards backwater, they're exponentially multiplied.

Floyd Kane's script nicely balances a group of engaging characters in a setting that's not only wholly, indigenously Canadian, but is one we're not familiar with (yet feels altogether real). Mattie's brother Carter (Shamier Anderson) brings shame to the family as he pimps out teenage girls from the high school. The relationship between the Slaughter brothers, though not without precedents in the sports movie world, has enough touches of darkness to deliver the sibling strife not unlike Foxcatcher (though nowhere near the twisted Bros in Scorsese's Raging Bull).

Our hockey hero's peer group, Black and White include his friend John (Steven Love), who is dating the mixed-race beauty Jayme (Sarah Jeffrey). In spite of the friendship twixt the two lads, John always feels like Mattie's eye is roving towards the woman he loves.

He wouldn't be wrong about this either.

So suspects the venal, rich boy Todd (Denis Theriault) who is always quick to hurl racial epithets and instigate fisticuffs and/or bullying against Black students in the school. In a nutshell, tensions are running high and a race riot twixt Black and White seems inevitable.

One of the nice things about the movie is how we're pulled into a setting so antithetical to the cliches of other gangland warfare pictures about African-Americans/Canadians pitted against Whitey. No high-rise projects on view in this setting - the families live in Haligonian bungalows in the burbs and the parents are hardworking working stiffs (Mattie's Dad is a self employed cement finisher, Jayme's pops is a uniformed beat cop and John's Mom is a weary nurse).

At times Across the Line reminded me of Charles Burnett's classic of African-American "normal" life To Sleep With Anger, but also, it manages to seethe even a bit closer to Burnett's Killer of Sheep where a working stiff eventually questions the future quality of life for his family due to the overwhelming pressures of daily life amongst his fellow African-American friends and neighbours.

If Charles Burnett made a movie in Halifax, it might feel a lot like this one. Alas, there are moments where Across the Line doesn't quite work as well as it should. The film flip-flops between gorgeously observed, almost Neo-realistic touches to some semi-klunky, seemingly shoehorned-in TV-issue-of-the-week shenanigans. In a sense, the screenplay, which is full of terrific writing, also betrays itself by feeling a bit too worked and polished. There is, for example, a clumsy subplot involving one of the teachers, played by Cara Ricketts, whose experience with racial tensions in her past informs her teaching ethos in the present. This makes sense, but a very strange, near-breakdown sequence she has during a White vs Black school riot just doesn't ring true, except maybe on a CBC Sunday Night made for TV movie.

What does ring true, though, are the elements of the story involving Mattie needing to "keep his nose clean" to ensure himself an NHL spot. Each moment that threatens to upset this apple cart adds considerable conflict to the story which increasingly feels so unfair that we're open-mouthed at how racist the world of pro sports is - especially one so "white" and "Canadian" like hockey. It is implied constantly and even stated very clearly that because Mattie is Black, he's got to tip-toe around every eggshell.

Luckily music video director, Director X, has a decent eye and good sense of rhythm. Working in tandem with cinematographer Samy Inayeh, editor Dev Singh and a first-rate cast (Stephan James, Shamier Anderson and Sarah Jeffrey all deliver sprightly, star-making and camera-loves-them performances), much of the picture pulsates and sparkles with the stuff of real life and bigger conflicts which pull the picture out of its occasional TV-movie-like toe-dipping.

And hell, the picture's main backdrop involves hockey.

It doesn't get more engaging and Canadian than that.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***½ Three-and-a-half Stars

Across the Line opens theatrically in Canada April 15, 2016 via A71 Entertainment.