TIFF Review: 'Empire of Dirt'

Empire of Dirt
(Canada, 99 min.)
Dir. Peter Stebbins, Writ. Shannon Masters
Starring: Cara Gee, Jennifer Podemski, Shay Eyre, Luke Kirby
Programme: Contemporary World Cinema (World Premiere)
Minnie (Jennifer Podemski) & Lena (Cara Gee) in Empire of Dirt.
Photo by Jason Jenkins. Courtesy of Mongrel Media.
As one watches Cara Gee’s sensational performance in Peter Stebbins’s Empire of Dirt, it’s quite easy to see how the actress landed a spot in this year’s TIFF Rising Stars programme. Gee is a fiery revelation as Lena, a young Aboriginal mother struggling to get her wayward young daughter, Peeka (newcomer Shay Eyre) back on track. Gee is well matched by co-star Jennifer Podemski (Take This Waltz), who also produced the film, in the role of Lena’s estranged mother. Empire of Dirt is worth seeing for the performances alone when Gee and Podemski go head-to-head with the powerful words of Masters’ script.

Gee’s strongest moment, however, comes in a strangely displaced moment at the end of Empire of Dirt. Gee delivers a powerful monologue that illuminates the legacy of the story that has just come to pass onscreen. It encapsulates the message of story clearly, but its emotional weight is drastically undercut by its removal from the core of the film and its placement as a post-script following some of the credits. It’s hard to say where this essential monologue and awards-show ready clip could fit, but one suspects that it might have more of an impact before the film cuts to black. It’s inevitable that one feels a sense of removal from the story as the credits role, so Empire of Dirt might have been doubly effective if this emotional punch was delivered in the main event.

Empire of Dirt often meanders, though, in a wayward subplot about Peeka’s absent father (Luke Kirby) and becomes doubly lost in search of a unique style to tell its important tale. The film suffers from a frustrating aesthetic that provides a distractingly artificial construction of reality, for many a frame of Empire of Dirt is obstructed by objects in the foreground of the shot. Characters’ faces are framed and obscured in annoying borders of set dressings and disruptions hanging from the ceiling. Add the film’s occasional lapse into overly shaky handheld photography and one has a style that detracts from the resonate history unfolding onscreen.

The performances by Gee and Podemski easily compensate, though, as does Masters’ script, which avoids cliché and provides a realistic and streetwise depiction of life for First Nations Canadians in the years following the trauma of the Residential Schools. The film brings a notable degree of representation for First Nations actors and stories alike to Canadian screens. Empire of Dirt, through its multigenerational story of forgiveness and reparation, is often a powerful tale of collective healing. The three generations of women convey the importance of looking to the past and moving forward, of acknowledgement and reconciliation, but also of forging relationships anew and not letting the ghosts of the past be a burden in the present.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Empire of Dirt screens:
Sunday, Sept 8 at 9:15 am at Scotiabank 14

Update: Empire of Dirt opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne on December 6.

L-r: Shannon Mastes, Peter Stebbins, Jennifer Podemski

Cast and crew of Empire of Dirt