Empire of Dirt
Directed by Peter Stebbings
The main problem with Peter Stebbings' first film since intimate vigilante deconstruction piece Defendor is that, more than anything, it feels like a well-made after-school special.
A Canadian First Nations family issues drama to the core, Empire of Dirt lays its heart out for the audience to observe, but doesn't offer any room for interpretation: it is what it is. This creates a very passive viewing experience — nobody will be arguing about the meaning of the story of a young single mother seeking refuge and support in her hometown after her teenage daughter is hospitalized for huffing gas in the big city.
First-time screenwriter Shannon Masters is basically riffing on the old adage, "home is where the heart is." Toronto is presented as a source of exploitation and temptation, while the small community in northern Ontario our hotheaded substance abuse councillor protagonist retreats to is portrayed as an idyllic haven.
That's not to say the depiction of rural life is squeaky clean. People are petty and mean, having their share of problems, only here sin doesn't scream as loud and the fewer the people in a settlement, the greater the inclusive sense of tribal support. This communal intimacy cuts both ways though.
Lena (Cara Gee) opens many old wounds in her homecoming: her recovered gambling addict mother meets a granddaughter who didn't know she was alive; old feelings for her accidental sperm donor, Russell (Luke Kirby), bubble to the surface; and most of the town dismissively remembers her as the slut who ran away, whether fully accurate or not.
Amidst the drama, Lena's best friend and self-professed "short guy" Warren (Jordan Prentice, who has filled roles as wide-ranging as Napoleon and a Giant Bag of Weed) provides comedy relief (mostly by being gracious about insensitive comments regarding his stature), moral support, verbal dress-downs when needed and zero sexual tension.
Prentice and Jennifer Podemski (as Lena's mother, Minvera) are both accomplished enough actors to fully inhabit their characters. Their professionalism helps anchor the comparatively inexperienced Cara Gee and Shay Eyre, who plays her daughter, Pikka. On their own and in scenes together, Gee and Eyre occasionally succumb to stilted readings. As a character study on the cyclical nature of drug abuse and poor parenting, this plainly shot film is only moderately successful.
The depth of appreciation for this effort may be contingent upon one's sense of personal connection to the subject matter, however. Inconsistent and overly sentimental, yet considered and sincere, Empire of Dirt is most aptly surmised as a simplified reversal of Thomas Wolfe's famous saying: you can always go home again, as long as you're prepared to handle your baggage.
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