Geared more toward venturesome festivalgoers than megaplex ticketbuyers, lightly likable “Hank Williams First Nation” is understated and allusive in a manner that suggests an anthology of interconnected short stories. Debut feature by Canuck writer-director Aaron James Sorensen is an iffy prospect even for limited arthouse release. Still, episodic dramedy about everyday life in a Cree tribal community could find responsive auds in cable, homevid and noncommercial venues.
Attractively lensed throughout Woodland Cree First Nation in the Peace River Country of Northern Alberta, pic unfolds at an amiably measured pace while emphasizing character development over plot mechanics.
Aging but vital businessman Adelard Fox (Gordon Tootoosis) is the sage patriarch of an extended family that includes Kookem (Edna Rain), his taciturn wife; Martin (Jimmy Herman), his 75-year-old brother; and Sarah (Stacy Da Silva) and Jacob (Colin Van Loon), teen children of Adelard’s long-estranged, drug-abusing daughter.
Out of the blue one day, Martin — a voracious reader of supermarket tabloids — announces the theory that, not unlike the oft-sighted Elvis Presley, Hank Williams may really be alive and well someplace. Adelard can’t talk his older brother out of making a fact-finding pilgrimage to Nashville, so he convinces young Jacob to accompany Martin during a long-distance Greyhound ride.
While Jacob and Martin travel south, life proceeds as usual back in the First Nation. Model student Sarah frets about an uncertain future and an inattentive boyfriend. High school teacher Miss Keating (Stephanie Dixon) tries to console Sarah, even as she signals distress about unmentioned problems of her own. Smooth-talking, wheeler-dealing Huey Bigstone (Bernard Starlight) hustles firewood from door to door after school, and spends too much time pining for Sarah. Adelard remains gracious under pressure as he copes with myriad personal and professional responsibilities.
Sorensen develops a strong sense of time and place in the snowy Peace River winterscapes, even when certain incidents supposedly take place someplace else. (Alberta doubles for several U.S. locales during the bus trip.) Pic also makes effective use of a folksy-sounding radio announcer (Sammy Simon) to underscore the close-knit community ambiance. Conveying wisdom and wry humor with ease, Tootoosis is standout in the fine ensemble cast. Dixon makes a strong impression in a key dramatic scene, but lack of a pay-off for hints about her troubled past are disappointing. Tech values are average for a small budget.