While a seemingly familiar tale of urban, ethnic plight, “Soul Survivor” gets added mileage from its unique setting in the Afro-Caribbean sector of Toronto. A relatively straightforward drama, film’s interwoven tales are elevated by assured direction and performances that convey authenticity. A decidedly upscale effort, it should travel well on the arthouse circuit domestically and in foreign climes.
Plot finds twentysomething Tyrone Taylor (Peter Williams) working in a salon but looking for a fast exit and quick cash. The Jamaican-Canadian sees an opportunity to make some money on the side by doing collections for a local club owner. He turns a blind eye to what’s about to bubble over and stuffs the dough in his pocket for some future business plan.
Tyrone believes he can distance himself from the violence and illegality of his association with gangster Winston Price (George Harris). It’s an act of complete naivete, but he is resolute in his blindness.
Writer and director Stephen Williams dives into the material with an abandon that has a considerable, if surprising, amount of charm considering its dark tones. The key to this sleight of hand is the appealing nature of Tyrone. His family and girlfriend (Judith Scott) warn him about the dangerous path he’s taken, and he assures everyone that he won’t fall down one of life’s manholes.
Even when he makes the most obvious misstep of guaranteeing thedebt of an unreliable cousin (David Smith), he remains sympathetic.
Character, humor and the music and traditional values of the transplanted Jamaican community are subtly blended into the fabric of “Soul Survivor.” It’s an unfussy, commanding debut for filmmaker Williams, who developed this first feature project at Canada’s professional film school. Even though the arc of its tragedy is obvious, the storytelling is unconventional and arresting.
Serving as the director’s screen alter ego is his real-life brother Peter, a natural screen presence. He anchors the film’s narrative, abetted by a colorful cast highlighted by Smith, Scott and family members played by Arden Bess and Leonie Forbes.
Handsomely crafted with a minimum of artifice, this quiet, potent effort touches a universal chord. A pleasant surprise from the Canadian film scene, it should benefit commercially from its original vision.