The Road Home

My Prairie Home
(Canada, 77 min.)
Dir. Chelsea McMullan
Featuring: Rae Spoon
Rae Spoon. Photo by Colin Smith, courtesy of the NFB.

There’s this brilliant shot in Chelsea McMullan’s musical documentary My Prairie Home (a Canadian Screen Awards nominee for Best Documentary Feature) that frames the two bathrooms of a Greyhound bus station as the film’s subject, Rae Spoon, talks in voiceover. There’s a men’s room on one side of the frame and a ladies’ room on the other. Both doors are open and inviting (as inviting as a bus stop bathroom can be). In centre of the frame is another door, closed and locked, and Rae’s bags occupy the in-between space that spans from the men’s to the ladies’ room. From which door will Rae exit?

My Prairie Home, with this subtle eye for place and space, asks a question that Rae has been conveying all along in their songs and stories. Rae, a transgendered musician, prefers the gender-neutral pronoun “they”. As Rae takes McMullan on a bus ride across the Canadian Prairies and tells their story to Chelsea, they speak of how conventional society doesn’t really make space for people who identify outside the conventional definitions. A bathroom at the bus stop might seem like the most mundane thing on Earth, but as the shot holds on the bathroom doors and Rae talks about their life, My Prairie Home offers a poignant visual complement for Rae’s story and for those who don’t fit into arbitrary social constructs. (Oh, and Rae merges from the ladies’ room, but then switches it up by stepping out of a men’s room later on in their travels.)

“I just realized that gender is something that everyone had a problem with and is just stupid,” Rae says in one of their confessional interviews laced throughout the film. Rae has a candid yet comical take on their story as they relate to Chelsea their upbringing in an evangelical Christian family in Alberta. Rae’s story might have a hint of the familiar at the outset as they find themselves through travel and music, but their fluid perspectives on identity and gender take this hybrid musical-documentary to unexpected places.

Life, meaning, and identity are very much questions of perspective as My Prairie Home follows Rae along a tour through the Prairies. The opening shot of the film, an upside-down long take shot from the point of view of a traveller looking out the window of the bus, invites the audience to look at the space around them and experience the familiar from an unconventional vantage point. A road movie as much as it is a musical or a documentary, the journey of My Prairie Home offers a unique and eclectic story about how one makes sense of oneself by negotiating feelings of belonging and comfort as one moves from place to place. There’s a meditative quality to travel, Rae notes, in one of the many languid interludes in which McMullan’s camera joins Rae on the bus ride to the next gig. Leaving the convenient comfort of home and exploring the world (and oneself) are necessary pleasures noted in Rae’s journey.

The meditative quality of Rae’s journey underlies much of the film as My Prairie Home fuses biographical details and stories together with live concert performances and musical interludes. The endearingly idiosyncratic style of My Prairie Home makes Rae’s story immediately accessible, for one gets to know them easily through the words of their music. Rae’s confessions allow the viewer to grasp the layers of their songs with greater feeling, as My Prairie Home lets the audience discover the artist through their words and music alike.

One also gets a strong sense of Rae’s quirky personality through the musical interludes, which are quirky and refreshing with their tongue-in-cheek plays on place, gender, and the tight-fisted social norms for which Western Canada has a sticky reputation. (The sequence of “Love is a Hunter” that features Rae singing amongst a forest of dancers in deer masks is particularly memorable.) The humour of the songs, however, show an artist taking the strains and pressures of their background in a positive light, as Rae transforms the moors of their upbringing with a rebellious flair. There’s no point in worrying about how people look at you, Rae says, and their songs celebrate finding life and love in the way that’s honest and true.

The hybridity of My Prairie home sets it at an uncommom--and refreshing--place in documentary film. Rae feels as much a participant in the creation of the film as they are a subject of it. McMullan lets the doc tread line between objectivity and subjectivity, but the presence of Rae's voice within the film form feels especially appropriate given the subject matter. (It's Rae's story, after all.)

Underlying My Prairie Home is an unexpected critique of contradictory attitudes and social constructs that might leave one feeling homeless. My Prairie Home does this feat most humorously in one sequence that takes in the tourist attractions showcasing Alberta’s history with the dinosaurs. Rae, singing a quirky ditty to the dinosaur bones, illustrates the amusing conflict between science and faith that are the two hallmarks of their prairie hometown.

The story of Rae’s fanatically religious father, who is also schizophrenic, highlights how their upbringing in a deeply religious and community was ultimately far more restrictive than nurturing, for their father’s mental illness was overlooked in lieu of his duty to the church. It’s an elephant in the room that only Rae seemed to notice. It’s a cause for concern, admittedly, given his volatility, but one sequence that sees Rae’s father show up and watch one of Rae’s concerts from the shadows offers some unspoken acknowledgment from Rae’s family that mistakes were made. Rae hardly looks upon their estrangement from their father with anger, though, and My Prairie Home instead lets the scene focus on a song that Rae performs as an ode to family members who were by their side during the transformative years of their adolescence.

The wonderful soundtrack of Rae’s experiences lets My Prairie Home celebrate a journey that has only begun. The introspective collage of this musical travelogue doc finds a pleasure in the middle ground between things. Rae’s story and travels invite the audience not to define the greatness of a journey by an endpoint, but rather by how well one travelled the roads along the way. McMullan ends by bringing Rae to the most picturesque point in the Prairies, the Rocky Mountains, and lets the journey take a step to higher ground as Rae settles not on specific place. Rae instead finds their own spiritual place as they carry a sense of home and belonging as they travel and share their story with other soul-searchers amongst the Prairies.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

My Prairie Home is available to stream from the NFB January 26-27.
(It will be available below at 12:01 am January 26.)