Blackbird: Film Review

Blackbird - P - 2013
An affecting story of enduring institutionalized prejudice.

Jason Buxton's debut finds a high school student (Connor Jessup) wrongly accused of planning a school massacre.

Inevitably, episodes of large-scale violence in this country are followed by suggestions that somebody could have prevented the tragedy, that warning signs were all over the place. Cries of "How could they let this happen?" are followed by pledges to be more watchful, more responsive to threats before they turn deadly. Jason Buxton's Blackbird is a potent reminder of how easily that impulse can go wrong, ruining lives by misreading clues -- especially when the person leaving those clues fits stereotypes of the kind of person likely to snap. Despite its low profile, the film is immediately accessible and could find an arthouse audience with the right kind of push.

In his feature debut, Connor Jessup plays Sean, a Goth sent to live in rural Nova Scotia with his father (Michael Buie) by a mother who can't integrate him into her whitebread second family. Finding few like-minded kids at his new school, Sean is bullied by local jocks and suffers a hopeless crush on Deanna (Alexia Fast), a pretty neighbor who shares confidences outside of school but pretends he doesn't exist on campus.

Sean wakes in the film's opening scene to policemen with a search warrant. A vent-your-feelings story he wrote at his therapist's suggestion, in which a young man guns down a hockey team, has triggered suspicion, and investigators quickly find all the out-of-context evidence they need to confirm that this misfit is just days away from a school shooting. Awaiting trial, Sean is sent to a juvenile detention so overflowing with aggression it could make a criminal of anyone.

Sean's passage through the justice system is painful to watch, provoking both sympathy and fear for what the environment may do to him. Jessup maintains remarkable dignity in the part: His quiet, confrontation-averse speaking voice never turns sullen or contemptuous, but it also isn't pathetic in its expression of a desire to be treated fairly.

While one or two of the threats facing Sean are drawn a bit broadly (the Alpha male inside the juvie center, Alex Ozerov's Trevor, has a menacing shtick that's a little too polished for someone his age), Buxton's direction is never heavy handed, leaning toward spareness over sentiment at almost every point. Sean's quiet refusal to stop trying to connect with Deanna is as difficult to watch as his legal travails: His father, a sports-loving hunter going to admirable lengths to connect with his son, seems to see clearly when he tells Sean she was never his friend, and the film's suggestions to the contrary feel like wishful thinking. But they're true to the psychology of a character desperate to find someone he can connect to in a community that sees him as a pariah.

Production Companies: A71 Prodcutions, Story Engine Pictures, Festina Lente Productions

Cast: Connor Jessup, Alexia Fast, Michael Buie, Alex Ozerov, Mark Owen, Tanya Clarke, Craig Arnold

Director-Screenwriter: Jason Buxton

Producers: Marc Almon, David Miller, Jason Buxton

Executive producers: Thom Fitzgerald, Chad Maker

Director of photography: Stephanie Weber Biron

Production designer: Bill Fleming

Music: Asif & Shehab Illyas

Costume designer: Kate Rose

Editor: Kimberlee McTaggart

No rating, 105 minutes