Set in a small rural town in Canada’s Northwest Territories, where cold and decay are constant companions, “The Lesser Blessed” is a little indie gem that begins with a warm bath. Larry Sole (Joel Evans) is submerged, silent, an enigma with soulful eyes.
The silence is deceptive. There is a fire raging underneath. It begins to surface in flashbacks as he lies there deathly still. All we know at the beginning is that there was a blaze and a fight with a man and that both left the teenager scarred. The visible ones we see right away. Horrible what fire does to the skin.
Pensively shot, painfully and poetically told, this is a story about a First Nations teen trying to recover from the unimaginable, respect his tribal roots and maybe fall in love.
In adapting Richard Van Camp’s moving coming-of-age novel, which gives the film its name, writer-director Anita Doron takes her time. It suits both the tall, string bean of a kid and the story.
Larry is no hurry to get anywhere either. If disappearing were an option, he’d probably opt for that. Instead, he clamps on headphones at home, head-banging to Iron Maiden turned to deafening levels. At school he keeps his head down, but that doesn’t save him from being the target of the school tough, Darcy McManus (Adam Butcher).
Doron, who was born in the Ukraine and didn’t leave the country until she was almost a teenager herself, might not seem a natural fit for the story. But she certainly understands how to play bleak. Working with cinematographer Brendan Steacy and production designer Peter Cosco, the filmmaker finds a balance between the beauty of the Northwest Territories and the entrenched poverty of its people.
Larry is surrounded by equally mysterious characters. Mom Verna (Tamara Podemski) is nearly as much a blank slate as her boy, with worry in her eyes and a stack of textbooks on the kitchen table. There is no mention of a father, but boyfriend Jed (Benjamin Bratt), a bush ranger, is due back in town soon. Whether he’ll be a good influence or bad is another thing Doron teases out.
At school there’s a girl, Juliet Hope (Chloe Rose), blond, blue-eyed and out of Larry’s reach. Friendship comes unexpectedly from a new kid named Johnny Beck (Kiowa Gordon). He’s tougher and cooler than Darcy, a good ally to have.
Much of the film is spent on the complicated dynamics of high-school tensions, romantic drives and racial differences. The dialogue captures that in both familiar and distinctive ways. Tribal language slipped into Larry’s conversations reveals that the teen is a Dogrib boy. This becomes a defining element in the film and helps keep the film firmly rooted in the region.
Larry and Johnny’s disaffection with the rest of the students and their affection for Juliet binds them. Juliet soon makes it a trio. Johnny is one of those charismatic bad boys to whom girls flock, and Gordon, who was one of Jacob’s wingmen in the “Twilight Saga,” knows how to work brooding heartthrob terrain.
With the sort of teenage passion that is scorching, Juliet is not so much dating Johnny as she is entwined with him. Like Gordon, Rose has a magnetic quality on-screen so that when they’re together it’s hard to separate whom you’re drawn to more. Larry, long and lean and with a sweetness about him, has to settle for the friend zone.
Evans is an intriguing young actor. Just 16 when Doron found him in a local Fort Smith high school, he has a studied sense of restraint that serves the film well. Though Evans embodies the awkwardness of a teen still growing into his body, he moves with great ease between emotional extremes, making hope and laughter coexist believably alongside his character’s confusion and rage.
A series of brutal fights with Darcy move the story along as Larry struggles toward adulthood. The film struggles here too; the transitions are ragged at times. Despite the issues, Doron has no trouble capturing the haunting grace of place and people and the harsh realities faced by “The Lesser Blessed.”
‘The Lesser Blessed’
MPAA rating: R for drug and alcohol use, violence, language and sexual content — all involving teens
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: At Downtown Independent, Los Angeles