Movie review – Empire Of Dirt
– by Alex Hutt
A serviceable film by Peter Stebbings (writer/director of the indie darling Defendor, also a Canadian TV actor), Empire of Dirt strays sometimes into the after-school special territory, but is strengthened by good acting and cinematography.
Stebbing’s film concentrates on three generations of Native women who have all been affected by teenage pregnancy and drug abuse. Lena (Cara Gee) is a single mother who cleans houses for a living and volunteers at a Center for Native youth. When her 13-year-old daughter Peeka (Shay Eyre, daughter of Smoke Signals director Chris Eyre) overdoses inhaling spray paint fumes, Lena returns to he house of her mother, Minerva (Jennifer Podemski), who herself was a teenage mother.
Shot around Toronto (Kensington Market) and Keswick (near Lake Simcoe) Ontario over 15 days, the underplayed acting is the largest positive factor. Gee, Eyre, and Podemski behave like real human beings would in these situations, and not like underwritten family melodrama characters. Memorable scenes include the conversation between Lena and a Family Services worker*, both of whom are visibly annoyed at each other, but trying their best to do their respective jobs as mother and worker. Dialogue in the family reunion scenes are natural, as Minerva and Lena quip at each other, but with obvious flecks of endearment.
The editing is done in quick jump edits from conversation to conversation, making the time feel a lot more constrained, and the pressure on the characters emanates from the screen. It’s shot in widescreen and tightly zoomed in on the faces and upper bodies of the actors, making the movie even more claustrophobic.
Interestingly, there seems to have been a conscious choice to not include background music, except for three instances. However, these aren’t intrusive and are effective at enhancing the scenes. All occur at key moments of change for the characters.
One of those moments is when Lena has a spiritual turning point, which feels a tad cliché, considering the original working title was Running Wolf. The intention feels genuine though, as the actors come from the cultures that the movie is referencing (Gee is of Ojibwe descent, Podemski is Salteaux ((part of the Ojibwe family)) and Polish).
Those familiar with the Ojibwe creation story of Ma’iingan (Wolf) and Man (Anishinaabeg), or the Cree stories of Wisakedjak, will be reminded of such (Lena’s last name is Mahikan as well). Screenwriter Shannon Masters is Mixed Cree as well, making the final plot development warranted, despite its melodramatic tendencies. On another note, casting decisions all around were interesting – apart from the Native actors, the Family Services actor was black and Jordan Prentice, a little person, was cast as Warren, a friend of Lena’s.
Meanwhile, tradition is portrayed realistically and Stebbings doesn’t forcefeed it to the viewer. Vision-quests and ancestral ties are brought up but in an organic matter, not as on-point PSAs.
It does highlight how much the schmaltzy last act feels entirely dissimilar from the remainder of the film. It doesn’t ruin the whole experience but it is unwarranted and rushed. The consequences aren’t too high either, and we are left wondering about the point of the climax – including a last scene with a customer of Minerva’s that is squirm-inducing. Having said that, Empire of Dirt is an enjoyable watch, and a solid recommendation for anyone who is looking for a story about Native mothers, or anyone who enjoys a good family drama.
Screened at TIFF 2013, the film is up for four nominations at the 2014 Canadian Screen Awards for Best Actress (Cara Gee – Lena), Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Podemski – Minerva), Best Original Screenplay (Shannon Masters) and Best Editing (Jorge Weisz).
Empire Of Dirt is showing at Vancity Theatre on Feb. 16 at 3:30 pm.
* Sandra, The Family Services worker played by Tonya Lee Williams, would be an interesting subject for a film focusing on her alone