When a childless Canadian couple takes on five Ukrainian siblings, ages 6 to 19, the difficult process of adoption is only part of the story in “High Five: A Suburban Adoption Saga,” a years-in-the-making docu from Russian-born, Vancouver-based helmer Julia Ivanova. With two of the younger siblings arriving well in advance of the others, Ivanova shows that the real drama lies in how family dynamics develop and change when all sibs are together again, living amid the values of a different culture. Already set for Canadian broadcast, this absorbing and compassionate pic should be embraced by other fests and broadcasters.
Initially, Martin and Cathy Ward of Surrey, B.C., want to adopt one infant, but after playing summer host to then 4-year-old Alyona, they learn she has additional siblings at the orphanage. When Alyona returns the following summer with her slightly older sister Snezana, they all bond well. The generous, well-meaning Wards then bring the rest of the family — younger brother Sascha and teenagers Yulia and Sergey — for a vacation, and determine to adopt them all; the emotional appeal of uniting the siblings trumps a full consideration of the economic and psychological costs.
Undeterred by the fact that the kids’ traumatic upbringing has marked Yulia and Sergey in obvious ways, as well as in ways they may not fully understand, the Wards press forward with the lengthy procedure. Complications ensue.
Helmer Ivanova (“Family Portrait in Black and White,” “Love Translated”), who worked for eight years as a foreign adoption specialist, makes use of her professional insights and first language to pick up on issues that Martin and Cathy are slower to see. Alone with the kids when they are talking in Russian, she sometimes steps out of her observational role to question them frankly about what they are doing and feeling. As the younger girls, who have had longer to assimilate, start to reject Yulia, who was once their mother figure, in favor of Cathy, we follow a small tragedy.
The Yulia/Cathy dynamic further deteriorates when money issues force Martin, a nurse, to accept a contract in the Arctic that takes him away from the family for six weeks at a time. Although Cathy professes not to feel jealous over the bond Martin and Yulia developed, viewers may wonder if seeing the teenage blonde constantly cuddle up to Martin when he is at home while rejecting Cathy’s authority plays a subconscious role in the family’s troubles. Moreover, Yulia’s refusal to accept Cathy’s appeal to “be nice,” because Yulia has grown up in a culture where it is important to be loud and stand up for yourself, should prove revelatory for North Americans considering adopting older, foreign children.
Although the final scenes, showing the now-adult Sergey and Yulia’s return visit to the Ukraine for what Martin calls closure, feel a tad rushed, the well-crafted, nicely scored pic remains compelling throughout. Jumps in time are smoothed by Martin’s voiceover narration.