'Indian Horse': Film Review | TIFF 2017

Indian Horse - STILL 1 - TIFF PUBLICITY - H 2017
Courtesy of TIFF
Important but not very nuanced.

The second feature directed by Montreal-born Steadicam whiz Stephen Campanelli is based on the late Richard Wagamese's novel and is executive produced by Clint Eastwood.

Like the Richard Wagamese novel on which it is based, the drama Indian Horse combines one of Canada’s greatest national glories — the game of ice hockey — with one of the darkest chapters in its national history: the terrible goings-on at Canadian-Indian residential schools where aboriginal children were taught to be good Christians, far removed from their own culture and heritage. This is the second feature as a director from Montreal-born camera operator Stephen Campanelli, the go-to Steadicam guy on the movies of Clint Eastwood, who gets an executive producer credit here. Campanelli's cinematographer is Quebec maestro Yves Belanger (Big Little Lies, Brooklyn) and their material is certainly beautifully shot but the psychologically rather flat screenplay, by Dennis Foon, pulls out the rug from under the audience’s feet in the home stretch, with the unnecessary twist ending upstaging the film’s core message of truth and empathy.

After its bow at the Toronto International Film Festival, this will travel to a raft of other Canadian festivals. Some international events will also want to take a look, though the film is finally more successful as a primer on the disaster that was the Canadian-Indian residential school system than as a stand-alone drama.

In the fall of 1959, six-year-old Saul (Sladen Peltier) and his slightly older brother (Skye Pelletier) travel north on the Winnipeg river in canoes with their parents and their grandmother, Naomi (Edna Manitowabi), to where “white men can’t find them.” This is to avoid their ending up in one of the residential schools for native Canadians run by the Church for the Canadian state, though at least the boys’ mother has already been converted to Christendom. Indeed, when Saul’s brother dies of “white men’s disease” (probably tuberculosis), his parents leave with his brother’s corpse to find a priest, with little Saul staying behind with Naomi. But when winter arrives and they haven’t returned, Saul and his grandmother set out to find their relatives, though their arduous trek ends with Grandma dead and Saul being picked up by the authorities and placed in the St James Residential School.

The early going sets up the fact that Saul’s background was mixed already, with his grandmother speaking Ojibwe and rigorously following in the footsteps of their ancestors, but his mother being closer to the English-speaking Christian world of the white Ontarians. There is an occasional voiceover from the adult Saul (voice of Wayne Baker), though oddly enough it is not used much to suggest how the boy feels about finding himself alone and between two cultures at such a young age. Since his mother converted and taught him English, surely his feelings about the Anglophone Christian world must be more complex, even if he clearly resists the routine abuse and complete denial of his aboriginal roots by those running the institution he's forced to stay at. The school’s “only test was our ability to endure,” he explains in a voiceover but that is about as much insight as is offered.

Thankfully for little Saul, at least he is introduced to ice hockey, which happens under the guidance of Father Gaston (Dutchman Michiel Huisman, Daario Naharis from Game of Thrones), who seems friendlier and less strict than his colleagues. Though initially considered too young to play, little Saul ingratiates himself with Gaston by cleaning the improvised rink each morning and practicing in secret with — in a wonderful detail that sounds like it could have come from experience — pucks made out of frozen horse dung.

He turns out to be very good at the sport, with Saul noting that “the game gave me survival,” and with his sporting prowess offering him a way out as he’s finally adopted, in 1968, by a family headed by Fred Kelly (Michael Lawrenchuk), who manages a team of native Canadian players in a nondescript industrial town. Saul is now played by Forrest Goodluck, who played Leonardo DiCaprio’s son in The Revenant, and the teen clearly enjoys the game he’s good at. But racism starts to rear its ugly head when Kelly’s aboriginal boys play all-white teams, with referees not treating all players equally, the crowds throwing little Indian figurines on the ice and the boys ending up in racially motivated fights in unlit back alleys behind bars. “They play for the same thing as we do, the feeling, and nobody owns that,” Saul is told when he suggests hockey is a “white game” (already a somewhat odd thing to say for someone who loves the game so much). Unfortunately, Campanelli’s film doesn’t offer anything deeper than this kind of faux-profound statement on why ice hockey is the great leveler. 

When the hockey prodigy (now played by Ajuawak Kapashesit, the least impressive of the three Sauls) finally moves to Toronto to play there and hopefully make it to the big league, Father Gaston comes to see the future star before he’s off to Africa for missionary work. “What happened at school was wrong,” he says to his former charge, seemingly apologizing for his colleagues and the way they treated Saul but especially his classmates, who were beaten, made to eat soap and kept in cages and worse.

(Major spoilers in the following two paragraphs.) One of the film’s most pleasingly realistic touches is that, despite all his talents, Saul finally doesn’t manage to become a hockey star, weighed down as he is by his difficult childhood and the fact that white people continue to see and treat him differently than his non-aboriginal peers. But the fact Indian Horse doesn’t turn into a simplistic triumph-over-adversity-through-sports tale doesn’t mean it gets everything right either. Quite the contrary, as Campanelli and Foon, in the home stretch, suddenly reveal Gaston was also a sexual predator, completely changing what we thought we knew about the priest and retroactively putting a completely different spin on his leave-taking apology.

It also erases what little nuance there was in the depiction of the residential schools, with most of the clergy harsh and unforgiving but Gaston initially depicted as a more moderate voice who advocated for the boys’ needs and talents. Beyond wanting to offer a late-in-the-game narrative shocker, there’s no need to reveal his true nature only years after Saul left the school, especially because the film sticks to a perspective close to Saul's throughout but somehow this not-insignificant detail was always overlooked. And since it arrives this late, it also makes it impossible to examine in any detail how Saul really feels about Father Gaston, who sexually abused him but also made it possible for him to find and then practice his passion. If revealed early on, their complex and painful relationship could have even functioned as a kind of metaphor for the Canadian state’s treatment of its native peoples, but the film now treats it as a kind of gotcha!-all-clergy-were-actually-evil moment, which doesn't do the more complex truth any favors.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the camerawork is the standout technical contribution here, with Belanger’s fluid work charting Saul’s growth from child to broken young man in images that respect his difficult journey without turning them into pretty pictures for prettiness’ sake.

Production companies: Terminal City Pictures, Screen Siren Pictures, Devonshire Productions
Cast: Sladen Peltier, Forrest Goodluck, Ajuawak Kapashesit, Michiel Huisman, Edna Manitowabi, Michael Lawrenchuck
Director: Stephen Campanelli
Screenplay: Dennis Foon, based on the novel by Richard Wagamese
Producers: Christine Haebler, Paula Devonshire, Trish Dolman
Executive producers: Stephen Campanelli, Roger Frappier, Clint Eastwood
Director of photography: Yves Belanger
Production designer: Oleg Savytski, Rocco Matteo
Costume designer: Aline Gilmore
Editor: Geoff Ashenhurst
Music: Jesse Zubot
Venue: Toronto Film Festival

In English, Ojibwe
No rating, 100 minutes