'The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open': Film Review

Experimental Forest Films; Violator Films
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (left) and Violet Nelson in 'The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open'
Subtle and involving.
11/27/2019

A two-hander told in real time, this feature distributed by Ava DuVernay's Array explores domestic violence, class and racism through the experiences of two young women.

A chance encounter on a rainy Vancouver street gives way to a potentially life-changing series of events in this effectively subdued drama. A more conventional film might insist on a cathartic wrap-up and indulge in some big-issue speechifying along the way. But though it addresses issues of resounding enormity, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open favors intimacy and hesitancy over grandstanding as it follows, mostly in real time, the halting conversation of two strangers, one in an abusive relationship and the other trying, gently but insistently, to help her.

Through the moment-to-moment shifts in guardedness and understanding between the central characters, writer-directors Elle ­Máijá Tailfeathers (making her first feature) and Kathleen Hepburn (her second) look at domestic violence, economic inequality and indigenous identity. The small-scale action and the emphasis on stillness and silence might test the patience of some viewers, but this is an involving and quietly haunting drama, and Norm Li's 16mm handheld camerawork is perfectly in sync with the material's unfussy realism.

The movie, which recently closed its festival run at AFI Fest and is premiering on Netflix a couple of days before its theatrical release, consists of long, unbroken takes woven together to create a story unfolding in real time — an approach used on a much grander scale in the upcoming 1917. In terms of narrative and aesthetics, The Body Remembers could not be more different from that war drama, but in its subtle way it offers a seethingly critical view of history from its own front line, the perspective of those left behind.

Tailfeathers plays Áila, a 31-year-old white-collar professional. Like many women, she says "sorry" way too often. But there's a clear-eyed strength to her, and she takes personal responsibility seriously: Encountering Rosie (Violet Nelson) on the street — barefoot in the rain, a fresh bruise on her face, her boyfriend raging on the opposite corner — Áila doesn't hesitate to intercede. 

Taking the pregnant 19-year-old by the hand, she leads her to her apartment, where she gives Rosie dry clothes, makes her a cup of tea and tries to talk her into moving to a women's shelter or someplace else where she'll be safe from her abuser. Though Áila spends much of the film tending to an often belligerent stranger, the film makes clear, in her troubling visit to a gynecologist — one of three introductory scenes that set up the real-time main story — that she's silently struggling with her own problems and anxieties. 

In Rosie's view, everything about the educated, well-dressed Áila says "white," but they're both indigenous. "Everybody's native these days, eh?" Rosie snarks. She refuses to let Áila call the cops, but she goes with her and listens to her — and, memorably, listens to her Joni Mitchell album — and screen newcomer Nelson packs her character's silences with a slowly blossoming awakening beyond her default barrier of skepticism.

In a prologue glimpse of her home life with her (heard but unseen) boyfriend and his willfully blind mother, Rosie is silent, obedient, fearful. But in the presence of the cautiously prodding Áila, whose eagerness to help she both appreciates and distrusts, she lets loose with her bottled-up anger, responding to the older woman's insistent concern with harsh rejoinders and put-downs.

Barbara Eve Harris lends a welcome dose of warm authority in a key supporting role, as a safe house's intake counselor. But the film belongs to the unlikely duo at its center, and the leads (both of whom will appear in Night Raiders, a sci-fi thriller starring Amanda Plummer and executive produced by Taika Waititi) create a believably awkward, tentative chemistry. It's evident that one has ever taken such an interest in Rosie's well-being, but also perhaps that Áila has never felt such an urgent sense of purpose.

The directors build tension with a light touch as they follow the thorny, gradually deepening exchange, with its contrasting and shared chords: Áila's ambivalence about motherhood, Rosie's vacillating on whether she's ready to leave a toxic relationship. There's a playful but potent turning of the tables in a terrific sequence set in a taxi, where Rosie adopts the role of savior, spinning a romantic and tragic tall tale of a backstory. There's an exhilarating edge to the sequence. And there's a wrenching sadness to this simply told story, but also but also a heartrending hope.

Production companies: LevelFilm, Telefilm Canada, CBC Films, The Norwegian Film Institute, The International Sámi Film Institute, Oslo Pictures, Tannhauser Gate, Experimental Forest Films, Violator Films
Distributor: Array Releasing
Cast: Violet Nelson, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Charlie Hannah, Barbara Eve Harris, Jay Cardinal Villeneuve
Directors: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Kathleen Hepburn
Screenwriters: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Kathleen Hepburn
Producers: Tyler Hagan, Lori Lozinski, Alan R. Milligan
Executive producers: Lori Lozinski, Tyler Hagan, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Kathleen Hepburn, Alan R. Milligan, Jason Delane Lee, Yvonne Huff Lee, Matthew Soraci
Director of photography: Norm Li
Production designers: Liz Cairns, Sophie Jarvis
Costume designer: Stina Lunde
Editor: Christian Siebenherz
Composer: Øystein Braut
Casting directors: Kris Woz, Kara Eide

105 minutes