Don’t let its florid, mouthful of a title mislead you: “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open” is a film that’s as urgent and unpretentious as it is remarkable. It’s safe to say you haven’t seen too many movies quite like it.
The film was made by women — co-writers/directors Kathleen Hepburn (the exceptional “Never Steady, Never Still”) and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers — and mainly features women. Yet this stirring and involving piece, whose title is borrowed from an essay by Cree poet-scholar Billy-Ray Belcourt, should resonate with anyone who has ever found themselves adrift on a rainy day with nowhere to go but down.
Such is the place that Rosie (Violet Nelson), a pregnant, 19-year-old indigenous woman, lands one gloomy afternoon after she’s fled the East Vancouver apartment she shares with her abusive boyfriend and his seemingly ineffectual mother.
Bruised and fearful yet with hidden bits of wickedness and self-possession, Rosie is rescued on the street by the more mainstream, also indigenous Áila (Tailfeathers). Though Ália, 31, clearly doesn’t want children at the moment (she’s introduced here being fitted for an IUD), she acts maternally and protectively toward the often surly Rosie, eventually locating a safe house for the beleaguered mom-to-be.
Rosie and Ália’s tense cab ride to this women’s refuge and often strained visit with its gentle administrators, Sophie (Barbara Eve Harris) and Cat (Charlie Hannah), takes up a compelling swath of the deliberately paced film, which unfolds almost entirely in real time. (Save a few introductory scenes, cinematographer Norm Li shot the movie on 16mm as a “stitched continuous take” and it proves a dazzling master stroke.)
Inspired by an encounter Tailfeathers once had in her own East Vancouver neighborhood, the movie has much to say (amid its significant silences) about many vital elements of the female experience, particularly the harsher realities for younger indigenous women. That the filmmakers present their story’s messages, themes and dynamics — and the action in general — in such unforced, naturalistic ways makes it all the more immersive and authentic.
The fine Tailfeathers brings grace, empathy and a touch of wistfulness to Ália while Nelson, in her feature acting debut, makes us care deeply about the lost, shaken, at times unpleasant Rosie. Their characters may spend a mere 90 or so minutes of their lives together but, we appreciate, won’t soon forget each other. And neither will the viewer.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: Launches Nov. 27 on Netflix; starts Nov. 29, Array Amanda Theater, Los Angeles