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This is a film about a troubled teen, Sean Randall, who is falsely accused of planning a Columbine shooting scenario. It all begins when an unlikely bond forms between Sean (Connor Jessup) and a preppy teenage girl named Deanna Roy (Alexia Fast). Deanna's boyfriend is deeply threatened by Sean and Deanna's friendship, resulting in a violent confrontation. Seeking to protect himself, Sean issues a death threat online - and is swiftly arrested. When the police raid Sean's home, they find rifles, shotguns, knives and ammunition - all property of Sean's father Ricky (Michael Buie), an avid hunter. They also find a supposed "hit list" with twenty names of people who have tormented Sean. The authorities and the media proclaim another Columbine has been narrowly averted, and soon Sean faces a terrifying imprisonment in a youth detention facility. Sean's only hope is to overcome his dark image, and prove his innocence to Deanna and to his community. Written by
My career as a movie journalist began with a juvie drama in 2006 when I traveled to the SXSW Film Festival to attend the World Premiere of "The Bondage." That picture, starring Michael Angarano and Mae Whitman, made my first festival Top 10 list. In 2010, two other juvie dramas, both at the Philadelphia Film Festival, ended up on my Top 10 from that event. Those films, the Romania/Sweden co-production "If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle" and the Canada/France/UK co-production "Dog Pound," raised the bar a bit more for this oft-explored sub-genre. Now another Canadian entry mines this fertile territory with "Blackbird," the auspicious feature debut of writer/director/producer Jason Buxton.
Let it be said at the outset that this is not an overly complicated narrative, and isn't meant to be. There's essentially one set, the detention center where the boys are held. Although the storyline is chilling and timely, it would be best not to reveal the details of why they're there, and it isn't really what "Blackbird" is about. Ultimately, this is an intense character study revolving around a couple of jailed teens, Sean and Trevor. In that sense it's quite theatrical, and one can easily see this as a stage production. It's a two-man show, and the filmmakers triumph because of the actors' palpable passion for and commitment to the project.
Connor Jessup is Sean, protagonist in the delicate dance on which his survival depends. His nemesis Trevor is played by Alex Ozerov. Buxton made the wise decision to cast actors of the same age, so Jessup's commanding performance -- he was 17 at the time -- is that much more remarkable. Not a huge surprise, though, since he's been acting since the age of 13 and in five short years has almost 50 television episodes under his belt, including a season of the Steven Spielberg-produced "Falling Skies." He's also accomplished behind the camera, as well, having executive produced and handling assistant camera for last year's Toronto Film Festival hit "Amy George." Ozerov has several television productions and shorts to his credit as well. This is his first feature. Yet he's on screen in virtually every scene and is a worthy foe to Jessup. The film doesn't work without his almost demonic counterpoint to the just this side of angelic Sean. The movie's success largely rests on the shoulders of Jessup, and he's more than up to the task. What a casting coup. The camera loves him and the physical transformation he goes through, although expected given the genre, is surprising nonetheless. Connor Jessup is a star in the making.
There are other characters intertwined with the primary pas-de-deux between Sean and Trevor. The triumvirate of Sean's pivotal relationships is rounded out by his dad Ricky (Michael Buie) and friend Deanna (Alexia Fast). The cast also includes a rowdy crew of fellow inmates. Their improvised actions and dialogue just add even more to the authenticity.
The film's look effectively matches the protagonist's (and our) emotions. Lighting is harsh and subdued in the cold facility, with shadows in Sean's dark world when his life seems to make little sense. He's more brightly lit as his character starts to transform. The soundtrack serves the narrative and is never distracting in what is basically a quiet experience on many levels.
Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron's cinematography is appropriately claustrophobic. In Sean's life, the walls are closing in. He's a stranger in a strange land. Long takes with little dialogue echo the work of Gus Van Sant, who's covered similar ground in his films. Rear tracking shots mirror the increasing paranoia of Sean's entrapment. One can sense him asking, "Is there someone behind me?" And there is -- the viewer.
There's more character development than one may be used to as it's vital for us to be drawn into Sean's world long before his situation begins its downward spiral. By the time the threats to his well-being become real, we feel his pain. Just as we settle into a comfort level with this crew, the roller coaster begins. From that point on Sean is the heart and soul of "Blackbird." Told with limited dialogue, the film is so compelling that I could not look away for fear I'd miss another dramatic glance, or glare, or flinch. By the time the credits rolled I felt drained, as though my emotions were incarcerated in Sean's cell. That's the very definition of art, being moved, feeling alive even as your heart is being put through the wringer. That's not an easy task to accomplish for young actors and a first-time feature director, but "Blackbird" does it, and gets it right.
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