I had the great pleasure of attending the premiere of The Lesser Blessed yesterday afternoon at the Isabel Bader Theatre, part of the TIFF 2012 program – and left the theatre incredibly moved.
Based on the novel by Richard Van Camp, and adapted for the screen by Van Camp and director Anita Doron, The Lesser Blessed is the story of Larry Sole (Joel Nathan Evans), a quiet and shy young Tlicho man, a misfit outsider navigating the social mine field that is high school, trying to make friends and fit in, and desperately crushing on classmate hottie Juliet Hope (Chloe Rose) while trying to avoid getting beat up by bully Darcy McManus (Adam Butcher). He loves heavy metal and is an excellent illustrator. And he’s struggling to overcome a horrific and violent incident in his past. Set in the fictitious small town of Fort Simmer, NWT (shot in Sudbury, Ontario), Larry lives with his mom Verna (Tamara Podemski) and her boyfriend Jed (Benjamin Bratt), a father figure dedicated to instructing Larry in the traditional ways of the Tlicho (aka Dogrib) people. Life takes an interesting and exciting turn for Larry with the arrival of cool new kid Johnny Beck (Kiowa Gordon), a hunky Métis bad boy who’s just moved to town with his mom and smart-ass kid brother Donny (Lucius Hoyos).
The storytelling is powerful and moving, with beauty and with agony – and the narrative voice-overs from Larry, as well as the sharing of day-to-day experience (Jed’s hunting trip) and Larry’s use of storytelling to tell his mom about his feelings, bring a nice connection to the oral teachings of Native peoples. And the scenes of Larry in the bath – interspersed throughout the film, dropping clues along the way – are both beautiful and terrifying, as we gradually see the burn scars on his back and chest, along with flashes of a memory of violence and fire. Sole and Hope are significant names in this journey – and the teens each have his/her own shifting path to navigate, even the bully Darcy.
Lovely performances from a stand-out cast playing amazingly well-written, fully realized characters. Evans is remarkable as Larry, an introvert with much going on beneath the surface, getting into Larry’s internal world and showing us glimpses of his heart with such stillness and depth – and powerful during explosive moments when those feelings erupt to the surface. Gordon’s Johnny is all cool toughness on the surface, but he’s got his own demons to deal with, as does his little brother, with Hoyos (as Donny) providing comic relief with hilarious potty-mouthed wise-cracks. And Rose gives a sweet vulnerability to Juliet, struggling with the everyday grim boredom of a small town where there isn’t much of anything to do except drink, do drugs and party – looking for love and perhaps a way out, and brave enough to break from her pack of friends to be kind to Larry. Even Darcy the bully is not all he appears to be – a past incident involving Larry has brought their relationship to where it is. Tamara Podemski gives a beautiful, haunted quality to Verna, while Bratt brings a sense of strength and wisdom to Jed – and both round out their performances with a raw vulnerability. There are no good guys or bad guys here – everyone is flawed and all are struggling. And keeping a sense of humour (Larry’s line: “Don’t panic, I’ve got bannock.” was hilarious) and finding a sense of belonging go a long way toward surviving life’s painful realities. These characters are very real – and the actors do them proud.
Writer/director Doron bounded onto the stage for the Q&A that followed the screening, which made me wonder if she’d taken her shoes off – either that or she’s super agile in heels or wearing flats under that stunning blue gown. She introduced the cast and author Van Camp, who joined her onstage – with Van Camp doing a hilarious optical illusion flying entrance from the wings. Fielding a question about casting, Doron spoke of the serendipity of assembling the team for the film. With a novel that was five years in the writing to a film that took seven years to realize, she saw Bratt as Jed very early on in the screenwriting process and he was happy to come onboard. Podemski is someone she’s wanted to work with – and she had her Verna. Doron did a road trip to NWT, touring high schools to find her Larry, and caught sight of Evans making a group of friends laugh in the hallway. He ditched the initial audition to write a math test (he got 80% on it), but they eventually connected and the first-time actor was hired. She also spoke of love at first sight during casting sessions with Rose and Gordon. And it was cinematographer Brendan Steacy who was the “angel” who introduced her to producer Alex LaLonde.
Someone in the audience asked if they’d planned to shoot during grey overcast weather or if this was by chance. Apparently, it was the latter – and it really added to the atmosphere of our young hero’s journey. There was a group of Tlicho (aka Dogrib) folks who came from NWT to see the film, among other Native peoples who came out to offer their support. All in all, a real spirit of community and support – from the film world, film fans and Native community.
The Lesser Blessed has one more screening at TIFF – sold out – on Tues, Sept 11 at 6:15 p.m. at the Scotiabank 2. Keep your eyes peeled for this one, folks, it’s a beautiful film.
For more info on The Lesser Blessed, visit the film’s website.
You can also check it out on IMDb.
And you can pay author Richard Van Camp a visit here.