Future scholars of the Cultural Appropriation Wars of the late 2010s are going to find a lot to talk about with Don McKellar’s “Through Black Spruce,” a film produced by a Cree woman (Tina Keeper) and directed by a white Canadian man that deals explicitly with sexism and Indigenous issues, and is based on a book by novelist Joseph Boyden whose own First Nations identity has recently come under dispute. More casual viewers, however, are going to wonder where all that offscreen drama went, and how it can possibly have translated into such low-blood-sugar lethargy. Ostensibly a First Nations riff on the perennially popular missing-girl genre, “Through Black Spruce” is a disengaged slog that confines its poetry to a title that nonetheless remains appropriate in one key way: The film creaks like it’s made of wood.
The cast, however, appropriately featuring indigenous actors playing the indigenous roles, is not to blame. Brandon Oakes as Will Bird, the soulful center of the half of the story that unfolds in Moosonee, Ontario, is a particular pleasure to watch, and some of the scenes in which he simply goes about his lonely daily life, on the fringes of his already marginalized Cree community, point to the richer film “Through Black Spruce” ought to have been, or perhaps the greater one that still remains to be made about the contemporary challenges facing members of the largest subgroup of First Nations people in North America. Lead Tanaya Beatty has a glowering sort of charisma that magnetizes us to her for a time, but that ultimately only serves to illuminate the plodding script’s deficiencies. She has so much more going on in her watchful eyes than she is ever given to express, and so much more surly, resentful intelligence than her character’s passive, often illogical behavior suggests, that the disconnect becomes its own source of frustration.
Planed down to a dull smoothness from the novel’s raw timber by Barbara Samuels’ over-literal screenplay, the film approaches the story in a far more linear fashion than Boyden envisaged. Rather than the lyrical conceit of having Annie (Beatty) and her uncle Will (Oakes) narrate in parallel — Will from his coma — the movie opts instead to flatly describe what happens, giving us little psychological context or insight into either character. And when so much of this sort of noirish vanished-girl mystery is reliant on psychological thrills and spills, without them, we just get a couple of dissociated characters twisting in the wind of an implausible story.
It’s Annie’s twin sister Suzanne who has gone missing, but then the feeling is that Suzanne disappeared from the lives of her family and community a while back, having moved to Toronto, where she scored some success as a fashion model. Local (white) Moosonee drug dealers, believing that Suzanne’s no-good boyfriend absconded with their stash, start pressuring Annie, her mother (producer Tina Keeper), and her Uncle Will to reveal Suzanne’s whereabouts, resulting in a severe beating that puts Will in the hospital. The novel’s surrealistic coma-narration is patchily evoked by a few high overheads of Will’s bed nestled in a clearing in the woods around James Bay — atypically dreamlike moments that jar even more due to their infrequency.
As twins, Annie and Suzanne are more odd couple than symbiotically linked. Annie is happy to stay in Moosonee, learning the ancient arts of trapping and shooting and generally not letting the old ways die. But she resolves to try to find her sibling, following her to Toronto, and tracking her still-warm path through apartments, acquaintances and modeling gigs. This brings Annie into contact with indigenous photographer Jesse (Kiowa Gordon), who may also have been Suzanne’s lover and is being pursued by a pushy reporter (McKellar). Jesse quickly alights on Annie as a suitable replacement for his missing muse. Back in Moosonee, the local heavies are getting heavier, but Annie is too busy being seduced by her sister’s semi-celebrity lifestyle to pay close attention.
Suzanne, Annie, and Jessie are all, it is implied, part of a broader moment in which mainstream Canadian society is celebrating Indigenous artists and models (Suzanne had “exactly the look people want right now,” Annie is told) in a shallow, almost vampiric sham of cultural sensitivity, counterpointed by the Cree people’s second-class status back in James Bay. And all this should make for fascinating texture, no matter how underpowered and irresolute the actual gone-girl plot may be. But the drab shooting style, the lack of characterization — which makes some of Annie’s choices downright mystifying — and the sludgy pacing conspire to make the overly cautious “Through Black Spruce” at best a bit of a drag, and at worst a case of missing the forest for the trees.