Starring Rykko Bellemare. In Atikamekw, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
How’s this for timing? While we’re still cleaning up the bunting from National Canadian Film Day, Chloé Leriche’s stringently authentic and unsentimental slice of First Nations life settles into a well-deserved weeklong run at the Cinematheque.
Crafted mostly with nonactors and performed entirely in the Atikamekw language, Leriche’s film is surely some kind of landmark, not least of all because it’s so absorbing. Rykko Bellemare takes much of the credit for that as Shawnouk, a young man suspended between boredom and aimlessness in northern Quebec’s Manawan reserve. Judging from the misdirected energy that seems to quiver beneath his surface (a fireworks battle in a desolate quarry has a pleasingly surreal sense of abandon), we expect something to go terribly wrong for the guy. And it does, when a stranger (Félix et Meira’s Martin Dubreuil) cajoles the surly, if soulful, youth into a burglary spree.
Somebody ends up dead thanks to that caper, and the terrified Shawnouk disappears into the woods with the cops on his back. It’s here that Before the Streets asserts itself as something other than a routine narrative. Shawnouk will eventually find a kind of redemption in traditional healing practices, depicted in blunt and unromantic fashion by Leriche and cinematographer Glauco Bermudez. But first, as a fugitive, he has to cycle through a few dead-end jobs (including a brief and depressing stint as a dogcatcher) and negotiate a tense détente with his mom’s boyfriend (Jacques Newashish)—also a cop, but one determined to put kin first.
All of this is delivered at a notably unstressed pace, with none of the beats that would be hammered into a screenplay if it were tendered at film school. The emphasis here is on a soul’s journey, and the closest thing to a climax consists of an intense close-up on Shawnouk’s face as he sings and hits a drum. Considering the source (and notwithstanding its crisp photography and attractive cast), this repudiation of conventional filmmaking is as exciting as anything out there right now.