A burglary gone wrong in the First Nations reserve of Manawan sends a young Atikamekw man on a journey of self-discovery, in a street-cast, anthropologically minded look at communities rarely given the time of day in fiction features. Made in collaboration with Quebec’s three Atikamekw communities, “Before the Streets” is the brainchild of erstwhile short-film director Chloe Leriche, who writes, directs, edits and produces, making a convincing case for the arrival of a promising new voice. The subject matter and solemn, deferential approach don’t make for an obvious sell to wider audiences, but anyone particularly interested in the latter-day existences of indigenous peoples should make an effort to track it down.
Shawnouk (Rykko Bellemare) is a directionless young man without many prospects. He is uninterested in the few manual laboring jobs available to him, and his home life is dominated by fractious interactions. As too often happens when a macho sense of identity is left to fester without any outlets for meaningful self-expression, Shawnouk is vulnerable to a suggestion that he might assist in petty crime, in this case burgling empty houses allegedly belonging to rich people. When someone pulls a gun at the wrong moment, an accidental shooting is the predictable result.
Understandably reluctant to face the music, Shawnouk goes on the run in the forest; thereafter, his emotional arc is essentially one of fear, guilt and, finally, redemption via traditional indigenous means. The film slightly sidesteps the question of whether a Canadian citizen, whatever their heritage, can really absolve themselves of responsibility for an accidental killing by engaging, however sincerely, in an indigenous spiritual cleansing ritual.
Leriche displays a Kelly Reichardt-like talent for evoking the straitened conditions of circumscribed lives of limited opportunity, and she and her d.p. Glauco Bermudez seem keen to capture as much of the flavor of modern Atikamekw life as possible. The ephemera of cheap mobile phones and run-down mopeds feature as heavily as the traditional tribal crafts, alongside liberal closeups of dirt under fingernails that wasn’t put there by a makeup department. The cast consists almost entirely of non-professionals from the villages where the film was shot, with the fluid, flexible script reworked to enable the casting of Bellemare’s real-life sister Kwena Bellemare Boivin as his sister on screen.
Notably, this is the first dramatic feature filmed in the Atikamekw varietal of the Algonquian language Cree, and its research credentials are beyond reproach. A little more vigor in the storytelling department would have been desirable, since beyond a couple of dramatic highlights, there is a noticeable lack of narrative forward momentum as the pic unspools.
Shot chronologically in 31 days with a crew of about 20, the film boasts impressive tech credits given the resources, with crisp lensing and distinctive, well-mixed sound design. The forest at night is particularly well evoked, with the drill of a woodpecker distinct from the cooing of pigeons, the chirping of insects and the call of an owl.
The pic’s unhurried pacing, reverent tone and naturalistic take on characterization won’t be to everyone’s taste, but as a calling card, this debut should ensure sophomore feature funding for Leriche — look to see her name in future fest brochures, with promotion to higher-profile strands eminently possible as her storytelling matures.