'Blackbird' Haunts

(Canada, 103 min.)
Written and directed by Jason Buxton
Starring: Connor Jessup, Alexia Fast, Michael Buie, Alex Ozorov.
Blackbird won top honours for writer/director Jason Buxton as the breakthrough Canadian filmmaker of 2012. The film shared the award for Best Canadian First Feature when it had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall (it tied Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral) and then went on to scoop the corresponding prize, the Claude Jutra Award for best new filmmaker, at the Canadian Screen Awards. The kudos are well deserved, for Blackbird lives up to the hype! Blackbird is a solid feature debut for Jason Buxton.

Blackbird is a gritty and realistic study of the consequences of teen bullying. Sean, played by an impressive Connor Jessup (TV’s “Falling Skies”), is an uncomfortable outcast in the small town of Eastport, Nova Scotia. Sean is picked on in school, but the law says the Sean is the aggressor.

Clad in gothic black and enjoying the aggressive beat of heavy metal, Sean could easily be an East Coast relative of Damien Echols, the teen who was wrongly convicted in the notorious case of the West Memphis Three. Like Echols, Sean finds himself at the centre of a Salem-ish firestorm in which the members of his close-knit community essentially put him on trial for standing out from the crowd. Sean and the alleged leader of the WM3 are both victims of finding an alternate route for their anger. Writing poetry in the 1990s is akin to drafting violent blog posts in 2012.

Everything goes viral nowadays, so Sean’s creative writing exercise about a Columbine-style school shooting is blown out of proportion when the Helen Lovejoys of his town start trolling the Internet. Rather than actually collecting his father’s shotguns and opening fire on his tormentors, though, Sean channels his anger into words. He is nevertheless tried for a thought-crime, as circumstantial evidence makes for as compelling a creative exercise for the police and prosecution as blogging does for Sean.

Blackbird takes a dark turn when Sean goes away to juvenile detention. Detention only seems to compound the very problems that brought Sean there. Buxton keeps the bullying going as Sean enters the harshly lit reformatory and becomes the target of the cellblock ringleader, Trevor, played by Alex Ozorov (Molly Maxwell). The notoriety of Sean’s crime follows him into juvie, as Trevor gives him the nickname “Columbine” and instigates the same kind of behaviour that led Sean to write his revenge story in the first place.

Buxton, however, smartly ensures that Sean’s tale isn’t one of complete victimization. Before and after Sean’s stint in juvie, he strikes up/resumes an odd relationship with Deanna (Alexia Fast, Jack Reacher), the girlfriend of one of the school’s star hockey players. Sean’s attitude to Deanna is borderline stalking: incessant text messages, iChat, and the like. Deanna plays the dual role of victim and bully alike, as she drops her puck bunny role and plays the part of Sean’s friend on the bus ride home from school, but then she refuses to acknowledge their friendship during school hours.

Life in Eastport isn’t much different from life in juvenile detention. There’s little room for an outsider, and even less of an attempt from the community to let the black sheep into the herd. Rather than point the finger at media shock tactics, poor parenting, or tired stereotypes, Buxton finds in Sean an intelligent composite of all the troubled teens that have come before him. Blackbird captures the social atmosphere of bullying, cliques, and subcultures that lead to alienation and, ultimately, violence among teens.

Blackbird offers a fine counterpart to Lynne Ramsay’s devastating 2011 school shooting drama We Need to Talk About Kevin. If Kevin gives us the psychological hell faced by a parent of a mass murderer, then Blackbird realizes the mental and emotional anguish burdened on Kevin from his peers. Well-researched and told without the slightest hint of sensationalism, Blackbird intuitively begs its audience to look at the conditions that precipitate Columbine-like massacres. It furthers the conversation Kevin implored us to have.

Blackbird is a much different take on the school shooting premise than Kevin, though, for Buxton devises his tale with haunting realism. (Although, to be fair, his hand is equally restrained as Ramsay’s.) Soberly lensed by Stephanie Weber-Biron and methodically paced by editor Kimberlee McTaggart, Blackbird feels more ripped from life than from the headlines. Central to the chilling effect of Blackbird is the honest, understated performance by Connor Jessup, who carries the difficult task of portraying Sean somewhere in the grey area between aggressor and victim. For once, the central teen of such a tale isn’t an all-out monster; rather, Buxton presents someone akin to the dark, disturbing figures that dominate such tales and makes the audience look beyond the studded jacket and face piercings. Blackbird is a thoughtful—and completely memorable—first impression by writer/director Jason Buxton.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Blackbird is currently playing in Toronto, Halifax, Montréal, and Vancouver.
It opens in Ottawa at The Mayfair July 5.