Film Review: ‘Through Black Spruce’

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.