In light of bullying becoming the hot topic of the day, Hollywood has assaulted us in recent years with a slew of coming-of-age fairy tales about helpless souls enduring psychotic levels of harassment while their peers, parents, and educators turn a blind eye in wait of a third-act reversal. Sure, the deus ex machina grants our long suffering protagonist the happily ever after he or she deserves, but it leaves the film’s target audience all the more victimised for want of a realistic social model. That’s what happens when all of your writers have been raised on teen fluff like Dawson’s Creek or the entire Disney Channel catalog.
In contrast, writer-director Anita Doron, who grew up in Canada and the Ukraine, has read books and stuff. She might even have stumbled on a few episodes of the original Degrassi High, a television series celebrated all across the Great White North for depicting awkward pimply teens as, well, awkward pimply teens. I’d venture to say this earnest, unglamorous approach to adolescence is felt throughout her new film, The Lesser Blessed, complementing a lyrical depth you’d be hard-pressed to find on the CW.
Based on the novel by Richard Van Camp, The Lesser Blessed tells the life and opinions of Larry Sole (Joel Nathan Evans), an alienated Tlicho teenager in the Northwest Territories. It’s so refreshing to find a high school flick set in those parts as opposed to, say, California or even Ontario. I like the way Doron uses our hero’s isolated environment to limit his view of the world, effectively caging his spirit. For all of his wit and courage, the boy has no choice but to suffer his peers, lest he should brave the endless tundra on his lonesome.
To cement this sense of helplessness, every source of hope is positioned just beyond reach, outside the small, impoverished community where The Lesser Blessed takes place. Take, for instance, the character of Jed, played by Benjamin Bratt as a gruff but innately empathic soul. He’d gladly take on the role of stepfather, but Larry’s mother, Verna (Tamara Podemski), still carries the wounds of her previous relationship, pushing the professional tracker to disappear in the wilderness for weeks at a time. By the same token, our young hero’s sole friend, Johnny (Kiowa Gordon), just transferred in and keeps reminding us he’ll move again with his old man.
Johnny and Larry bond immediately over their shared heritage as First Nations kids, but, as these things go, a girl by the name of Juliet (Chloe Rose) soon gets between the two, hooking up with the new bad boy in town while stringing along the quiet soul worshipping her. In an American feature such as, say, The Kings of Summer (2013), the resulting tension would culminate in a pointless fistfight so our hero can learn a lesson. Instead, The lesser Blessed lets its characters behave like normal, sensible teenagers, confining their transgressions to the sort of minor missteps one might expect when youths are faced with a conundrum for which they’ve yet to establish a code.
I admire Doron’s matter-of-fact take on the teenage condition, the way, for example, she exposes Juliet as a compulsive troublemaker without turning her into a plot device or cautionary tale. We understand from Chloe Rose’s piercing blue eyes how Larry might become infatuated with the girl but also perceive a complete human being too wrapped up in her own issues to fully participate in his narrative. The Lesser Blessed allows her actions and those of local bully Darcy (Adam Butcher) to catch up with them with such unprecedented realism that I might have though it a third-act reversal if the turn of events weren’t so damn logical.
Larry’s journey rings just as true, from his quietly strained relationship with Verna to the way his language evolves as he slowly claims his place in the world. I also like how Doron treats his childhood trauma, keeping the details close to the vest just as our hero does the burn scars under his shirt. Most Hollywood coming-of-age stories would have us believe that such abuse can only be cured through catharsis, that depression can be countered with a mere kiss, and that bullied kids should hide in their luxurious walk-in closets until the tables turn. The Lesser Blessed takes the more responsible tact of promoting to our youths the virtues of perseverance. Adolescence, after all, is not a lifestyle but a temporary state.