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Sundance Film Review: ‘My Prairie Home’

Director Chelsea McMullan captures Canadian trangender folk singer Rae Spoon's music and life story in sensitive detail.

Cast:

Rae Spoon.

The Canadian prairie doesn’t just serve as itinerant transgender folk singer Rae Spoon’s primary touring stomping ground; it’s also a perfect visual counterpart to Spoon’s music — filled with placid, contemplative stretches interrupted by sudden, striking explosions of color and drama. Both the music and the landscape are captured in sensitive detail by Chelsea McMullan’s “My Prairie Home,” though the film’s lyrical appeal — and Spoon’s highly affecting life story — are somewhat undercut by frequent, and frequently awkward, cutaways to high-concept musicvideos. The docu should nonetheless find an appreciative audience at fests.

Born a woman, Spoon prefers to be referred to by the gender-neutral pronoun “they” as opposed to “him” or “her,” yet when pressed about which bathroom to use or how to explain things to curious customs agents, Spoon notes, “Sometimes you just have to move along.” This sort of Zenlike calm runs through Spoon’s music and their demeanor, and they generally come across as someone with deeply passionate beliefs who’d nonetheless prefer not to hector anyone about them. Tailed by cameras on countless, lonesome Greyhound trips from one small-town Canadian gig and spare hotel room to another, Spoon is never less than pleasant company, and the singer discusses some genuinely painful experiences without ever threatening to turn the film into a sob story.

The daughter of a schizophrenic evangelical Christian father, Spoon was abused both at home and at school, and the singer is quite eloquent when reminiscing with their brother or a high-school girlfriend. Tunes from Spoon’s songbook are deployed in thematically appropriate ways throughout, with the curious power of the singer’s voice — which tends to linger in a sort of pensive speak-singing before jumping to the higher register with unexpected power — holding attention through even the most skeletal song arrangements.

Live gigs are as well recorded as possible for a tiny crew in cavernous performance spaces, and an early video shoot that follows Spoon playing live while walking around a coffee shop in an unbroken tracking shot is quite arresting. But the decision to augment the film with increasingly flamboyant conceptual videos breaks its low-key spell a few times too many. Spoon never appears at all comfortable lip-syncing to the camera, and becomes even less so when asked to do it surrounded by dinosaur skeletons or, most ill-advisedly, cavorting dancers clad in deer costumes. One might admire the attempt to do something different with the music docu format, but in this case, less would have been so much more.

Sundance Film Review: 'My Prairie Home'

Reviewed at Wilshire screening room, Beverly Hills, Jan. 8, 2014. (In Sundance Film Festival — World Cinema, competing.) Running time: 77 MIN.

Production:

(Canada) A National Film Board of Canada production. Produced by Lea Marin. Executive producer, Silva Basmajian.

Crew:

Directed, written by Chelsea McMullan. Camera (color), Maya Bankovic, Derek Howard; editor, Avril Jacobson; music, Rae Spoon; production designer, Leanne MacKay; sound, Alex Unger.

With:

Rae Spoon.

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