Shrill melodrama, feminist rant and folk-tale mysticism intersect in “Backroads,” a painfully sincere but hopelessly muddled debut feature by Native American writer-director Shirley Cheechoo. Theatrical prospects are zilch, though fuzzily defined supernatural elements might be exploited to good effect on homevid packaging.
Set during the 1970s on an isolated reservation in the Canadian backwoods, pic revolves around the much put-upon Ella Lee (Renae Morriseau), one of four Cree Nation sisters. In the course of a single morning, Ella Lee (a) is raped by a sleazy white ex-employer; (b) fatally stabs her abusive Cree husband in self-defense; and (c) is brutally interrogated — and sexually molested — by Larry (Max Martini), a racist white cop. Grace (Sheila Tousey), Ella Lee’s lawyer sister, returns to the reservation after a long absence to defend Ella Lee against trumped-up murder charges. Ultimately, however, it’s up to a shape-shifting specter known as Bearwalker to set things right. Acting ranges from adequate to amateurish, and many overwrought scenes are unintentionally funny. Even so, a few f/x shots are modestly impressive.