Monday, March 30, 2009

NAFV Fest: Tkaronto

Holding onto one’s traditional heritage in the modern world can be a challenge. Simply forging meaningful human relationships can also be hard. For Ray Morrin, a mixed race Métis, both prove equally difficult. That search for spiritual and personal meaning in an uninspiring urban landscape drives Shane Belcourt’s Tkaronto (trailer here), which screened this year as part of the Native American Film and Video Festival at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Morrin is still more than a bit immature, but he is about to become a father. He needs to get serious about his life, which seems to require landing a technical advising gig on a prospective television show that would largely mock his heritage. While in Toronto (Tkaronto in the original Mohawk) for an important pitch meeting, he is thrown together with Jolene Peltier, an Anishinaabe artist, at a time when both are at a crossroads in their lives.

After painting the portrait of Max, a local Aboriginal Elder, Peltier is deeply affected by his gift of an eagle feather. It stirs a longing for a deeper meaning in her life and a desire to reconnect with the traditions of her ancestors. As she kills time with Morrin, an undeniable attraction starts to blossom, which further complicating their uncertain futures, considering they are both married, to white spouses.

Belcourt’s screenplay features such razor-sharp dialogue, it sometimes induces physical wincing. Morrin endures some blisteringly frank criticism as well as some teasing bordering on the cruel. While their banter is often quite witty, many of his scenes with Peltier play out like confessionals. Yet their dramatic exchanges never seem forced or artificially melodramatic, thanks to the strong on-screen chemistry of the principles. Duane Murray is absolutely convincing as Morrin, a man who essentially sees himself as a loser, who must come to terms with his disappointments and shortcomings. As Peltier, Melanie McLaren is much more reserved in their scenes together, but conveys a compelling depth of yearning, particularly in a remarkable key scene with Elder Max.

Tkaronto is a simple story, but it is told with unsparing honestly. In truth, Belcourt probably demonstrates more potential in Tkaronto as a screenwriter than as a director. His words are forceful, but his scenes are sometimes hard to follow, particularly with his frequent use of off-camera, disembodied dialogue. Ultimately though, it detracts little from his smart script and the strong performance he elicits from the cast. Its next screening will be at London’s Origins Film Festival on May 4th.