Review: The Lesser Blessed
Growing up is never easy, and it may be even harder in the Northwest Territories.
This Friday, American audiences in select cities will get a chance to see The Lesser Blessed, a small (but not slight) coming-of-age film from director Anita Doron that makes its setting its selling point, offering a nuanced view of adolescence shaped by the economic and cultural pressures of rural Canada. Based on the book by Canadian novelist Richard Van Camp, the film was well-received at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and is a compelling alternative to big-budget genre fare like This Is The End and Man of Steel.
Newcomer Joel Evans stars as Larry Sole, a Canadian high-schooler from the Tilcho aboriginal tribe who lives with his mother and carries the literal scars of past abuse on his shoulders. He’s content to stay on the margins, an outcast who finds escape from bullies and haunted memories in heavy metal music and isolation. He pines for chemistry classmate Juliet (Chloe Rose), but she barely notices him until he starts hanging out with the new kid, a rebellious cutup named Johnny (Kiowa Gordon). Of course, things get complicated when Johnny and Juliet start dating, leaving Larry stuck in the friend zone.
This is Evans’ first acting gig, and he brings enough screen presence to suggest he has a promising career should he choose to pursue it. He delivers his lines with a casual monotony that manages to seem both natural and slightly staged, as if Larry is never quite fully comfortable interacting with other people. The script occasionally fails him, veering off into ham-fisted monologues that seem a bit too revealing for a character so reserved, but he mostly manages to keep things from sliding into self-parody. The other actors fare even better, particularly Rose, who keeps just enough heartache lurking around the edges of Juliet to keep her from seeming like just another manic pixie dream girl.
Visually, The Lesser Blessed is impressive. Doron fills her movie with shots of the elements: water sliding off skin, fire bursting from blurred emptiness, wind rustling through trees. She films nature in a way that acknowledges its paradoxical essence, calm yet always wild, beautiful yet potentially dangerous. This works as a fitting backdrop for Larry’s coming-of-age journey, as he questions his own nature and the extent to which his identity is set in stone. Most of the time, the camera is static, allowing the audience to observe these characters from afar and with minimal cinematic distractions.
Doron also adds just the right amount of cultural awareness to the proceedings, perhaps drawing from her own experiences as a Ukrainian immigrant to capture Larry’s alienation. For the most part, his ethnicity is left to simmer in the background, a major part of his identity that never becomes his defining characteristic. Though he shares his First Nations heritage with Johnny, that initial commonality soon becomes secondary to the usual challenges of adolescence, from sexual awakening to the blissful haze offered by drugs. His Tilcho identity is infused into every scene, yet it’s only emphasized when his mother’s on-again, off-again boyfriend Jed (played with restrained finesse by Benjamin Bratt) offers wisdom from tribal traditions and legends.
Oddly enough, it’s these scenes that feel the most awkwardly structured, despite Bratt’s charisma, and they nearly undo the film. While these monologues add an intriguing cultural perspective to situations we’ve seen depicted on screen hundreds of times before, they slide into heavy-handed preaching too often to ignore. We get it: Larry is recovering from a past trauma, something involving his father and fire and a whole lot of guilt. The film resorts to telling as much as showing, turning its subtext into text, and as a result the emotional beats never quite connect. Audiences can understand Larry’s struggle to find himself without being hit over the head. His trauma may be specific, but his journey to self-realization is universal. That’s ultimately what allows The Lesser Blessed to rise above its rough spots; we’ve all got a fire that needs facing.