July 15, 2005

Hank Williams First Nation

Directed by Aaron James Sorensen Starring Gordon Tootoosis, Stacy Da Silva and Bernard Starlight

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Policy changes at Telefilm Canada have polluted the country's film industry of late, and the Crown corporation's crop of beneficiaries in 2004 is seriously unspectacular. But amidst what seems like a creative drought among up-and-coming Canadian filmmakers, Aaron James Sorensen's Hank Williams First Nation stands tall. Made outside the federal-funding system, this earnest and genuine debut actually celebrates our heritage far more than do the cookie-cutter Telefilm projects. Unlike most of his attention-starved contemporaries, Sorensen isn't replicating the formulas of established local auteurs or emulating the contrived quirkiness dominant in American indie cinema.

Packed with fascinating characters and scenarios, Hank Williams First Nation depicts life in a remote Albertan Cree community - the frigid cold, the idleness, the hopes of its members and its adulation of the titular country-music legend. Adelard Fox (Gordon Tootoosis) asks the school principal (Ron Waller) to excuse his grandson Jacob (Colin Van Loon) for a few weeks right before midterms. Suspecting Hank Williams, Sr. might still be alive and hoping to track him down, 75-year-old tabloid enthusiast Martin Fox (Jimmy Herman) needs Jacob's assistance on an impromptu journey to Nashville, Tenn. Meanwhile, high-school valedictorian Sarah Fox (Stacy Da Silva) is struggling with insecurities as she searches for a date and copes with her parents' perpetual absence. Practically a dropout, Huey Bigstone (Bernard Starlight) sells firewood door to door and raises money for the sketchy Community Betterment and Enhancement Committee.

Sorensen's affection for his subjects is undeniable and infectious. There isn't a false note in the lives he depicts in spite of the implausibility of some insignificant subplots. Unlike the Inuit-themed Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, Hank Wiliams First Nation avoids a myth-making ethnographic portrayal. One priceless scene has Adelard and Chief Chicken Wings (Raymond Carafelle) conversing in Cree without any subtitles, but the occasional English vocabulary in their exchange hilariously clues viewers in on the topic of discussion and ingeniously underscores the larger cultural war and identity crisis within the community. Another amazing scene captures Huey and Jacob's small talk over lunch entirely in a masterful long shot.

The film as a whole is unfortunately not as great as the sum of its parts. Sorensen's status as a novice filmmaker is sometimes painfully evident, as his plot, characters and style remain static throughout. His colourful vignettes would serve better as backdrop rather than the central theme, like how Banks/Egoyan vividly illustrated a small community coping with a school-bus crash in The Sweet Hereafter. Sorensen raises some weightier issues - such as addiction, broken families, ineffectual social work policies and lack of recreational outlets - but without necessarily resolving or even addressing them in a meaningful way. With John Sayles’s observant social commentary and David Gordon Green’s languorous visual style, Hank Williams First Nation would have had the potential to be something truly magnificent. Still, it's exciting to see a fresh and original voice finally emerging from the Canadian filmmaking scene.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.