Wednesday, July 31, 2013

MIFF Session 5: Blackbird: Suffer the little Goths....

There are a few scenes in the middle of this film which show its protagonist, Sean, reading Franz Kafka's The Trial. I normally dislike obvious references like this but this time it works well by being poignant rather than merely clever. Sean, 16 year old schoolboy in provincial Canada, wakes one morning like Joseph K to find himself arrested.

He was bullied at school by the hockey team alphas and worked out his vengeance by posting it on his blog, the whole scenario. Scenario means plan to the cops and the legals who shine atomically in their community for preventing another Columbine. Faced with copping a  plea and a slap on the wrist or going to trial and clearing himself, Sean goes hard with the latter. In juvenile detention where he reads Kafka he is bullied with greater force and less hope of protection. When the trail date is postponed and he looks at months more of this he follows his hotshot lawyer's advice and cops a plea. Slapped on the wrist and given a restraining order for twenty-seven people, he is freed. That's when his trouble starts.

Out in the free world he must navigate his legitimate path carefully or risk either more prison or less official and less limited retribution. He only wrote a blog post. There was an arsenal of weapons in his house but they belonged to his father. Out hunting in an early flashback he aims a rifle at a deer who suddenly looks like an unkillable pet. He has no trouble iphone-ing the gutting and the resulting viral video is everywhere. He's a goth, self-described, spiked leather jacket with an inverted red pentagram painted on to look like it was drawn with blood. No one is going to believe he would leave it at a blog post.

I say the trouble starts after prison because something happened early on that lifted this film from a paranoia fest or a copy of Gus Van Sant's Elephant. In the midst of this grim naturalism comes a Romeo and Juliet story that defies belief and its suspension, making us shut up until we see it working. Sean, social leper, is the infatuation of Deanna, GF to the hockey team captain. Through the roll call of extreme differences between them is an effortless intelligence that they are not seeing anywhere else. As I say, this takes a bit of doing but that it does comes down to this film's primary strength: performance.

Alexia Fast makes Deanna and her attraction to Sean believable by showing how difficult it is for her to express it. She easily snubs him in front of friends after they have communed in private, knowing the agony it will cause him. Her arc is a very subtle quest for her own strength. She really does have to give up her popularity if she pursues him and the pain of that is there in her playing. It's a fragile but impressive turn.

Connor Jessup (who could be Scarlet Johansen's twin brother) is the centre of gravity here. This is a film about suffering. Jessup takes his victim from its awkward imbalance of anger and fear into the coldest corners of isolation, never more than a teenager, never less than intelligent. You know that Sean is not going to reverse his fortunes in a single explosive act like an American hero, he's going to have to work it. It's telling that the climax of this film involves him delivering a single short line into a courtroom microphone. There is a quaver in his voice but it is the surrender of fear rather than an expression of it. There is no sudden uproar in the court. He's made his decision and the rest is process and data entry but the moment is a proof.

Blackbird is a quiet piece but that is possibly the most efficient way of showing suffering as a first world phenomenon. It's not without it mainstream concessions but that it can transcend them with such restraint while keeping a firm hand on solid narrative and compelling action is testament to its worth. If you look up Connor Jessup at the imdb you'll find a dizzying rap sheet of achievement for an under twenty. Are we looking at another Brit Marling? Maybe. By the time he utters Sean's (and the film's) final line we know he's earned something.

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