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My Prairie Home: Sundance Review

My Prairie Home Sundance Film Still - H 2014
Colin Smith

The Bottom Line

The musical film about a transgender artist captivates the eye and ear.

Venue

Sundance Film Festival

Director-screenwriter

Chelsea McMullan

The Canadian musical documentary shines a spotlight on transgender performer Rae Spoon.

One of the more unusual films screening in the World Cinema section at Sundance is the Canadian musical documentary, My Prairie Home. Transgender performer Rae Spoon has developed a following for her concerts and albums, but this film does justice to Spoon’s musical gifts, though it is perhaps less illuminating when it turns to the artist’s unconventional personal history. Viewers who are content with a musical introduction to this performer’s work will be satisfied, but the film is a little too narrow in focus to achieve much distribution beyond the festival circuit. (It will be a favorite at gay film festivals, for sure.)

The film begins with striking upside-down images of the Canadian prairie, an opening that hints at the director's visual talent along with Spoon’s off-center personal journey. Then the film introduces the singer, performing one of her songs at a prairie cafe, walking through the diner while almost no one pays the slightest attention to the music. This is perhaps meant as a metaphor for the position of an outsider in a homespun society, but it works effectively as cinema.

Throughout the film the musical sequences are particularly effective. One song is performed under the covers, another shows Spoon walking proudly through a school hallway and another near the end has her on top of a glacier, watched only by prairie creatures. These sequences are all creatively filmed and leave us eager to discover more of the artist’s work.

Along the way we learn a little about Spoon’s background. Raised in a conservative religious family by a father described as a spiritual leader as well as a tyrant, Spoon clearly had to struggle to find her own way. References are made to the movie Boys Don’t Cry, a drama about the tragic life of another transgender youth. Perhaps music allowed Spoon to escape what might have been an equally downbeat fate. But one craves more information on Spoon’s troubled childhood. We hear about a brother who died and meet another brother, but the family details are minimal. We do get to meet Spoon’s partner, who plays a prominent role in the film.

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McMullan's visual gifts help to compensate for the sketchy biographical data. Beautiful scenes of western Canadian cities and outdoor vistas make the movie consistently engaging to watch. Although the film runs only 77 minutes, it still seems a bit distended because of the thinness of the biographical material. However, music and images ultimately carry the day.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival
Production: National Film Board of Canada
Director-screenwriter: Chelsea McMullan
Producer: Lea Marin
Executive producer: Silva Basmajian
Directors of photography: Maya Bankovic, Derek Howard
Music: Rae Spoon
Editor: Avril Jacobson
No rating, 77 minutes