(Canada, 86 min.)
Dir. Director X., Writ. Floyd Kane
Starring: Stefan James, Sarah Jeffrey, Shamier Anderson, Hugh Thompson, Lanette Ware, Jeremiah Sparks, Steven Love, Denis Theriault, Cara Ricketts
Some film directors begin their careers in short film, while other feature filmmakers have more musically inclined origins in the unsung sibling of short film, the music video. Music videos often inspire directors with a great visual sense (ex: Tarsem Singh, Michel Gondry), but they just as often create monsters with no real eye for cinema (ex: Michael Bay, McG). They sometimes even yield great directors like David Fincher or Jonathan Glazer. Canada’s mysteriously named Director X. (aka Julien Christian Lutz) is mostly famous as the director of Rihanna’s “Work” video featuring Drake at a Toronto jerk joint, but his feature dramatic debut Across the Line is as hot as a piece of jerk chicken.
Across the Line only has a few fleeting glimpses of music video aesthetic as Director X. explodes racial tensions in Cole Harbour High School in the small Halifax town of North Preston, and students come to brawls in slow-motion battles of brutal, animalistic violence. The film puts humans down to their primordial state as political correctness at Cole Harbour goes down the shitter. “Monkey,” “half-breed,” and “nigger” are common words that students such as Mattie Slaughter (Stephan James) and his friend Jayme (Sarah Jeffrey) have hurled at them by the uppity white kids who treat the parameters of the halls like the Mason Dixon line. The fights, which explode into a full-blown race riot by the end, largely stem from a petty act of jealousy by one student, Todd (Denis Theriault), Mattie’s resident rival on the school hockey team.
Mattie, see, is the school’s star player. As a black superstar on the ice in a game predominated by white folks, Mattie Slaughter has the stuff that diversity-seeking scouts dream of: talent, freshness, and good PR for a university team. Mattie also keeps his nose clean and doesn’t take the crumbs that the schoolyard crackers throw around like bait. Fighting’s for the ice, not for the schoolyard, and he knows not to compromise his future. This part isn’t easy, since Todd always makes an effort to target Mattie’s friends and rile them up. Ditto Mattie’s deadbeat pimp of a brother (Shamier Anderson), who hustles Mattie’s classmates out to johns while picking his kid brother up from the rink. Across the Line doesn’t hold back as it shows how much harder Mattie has to fight for his shot at the NHL over his peers, nor does it shy away from revealing how sports afford him a necessary outlet—and escape plan—from the conveniences of a petty life that await him off the rink.
While Across the Line succeeds in large part thanks to Director X.’s visual grasp for rupture, rhythm, and flow, the film is especially strong for James’s unwavering lead performance. As Mattie, James gives his fullest dramatic performance yet by conveying his character’s perseverance, heart, and determination. There’s ample soul in this star player to convey Mattie’s genuine love for the game, his resilience to achieve his dream, and the focus it takes to deflect racist taunts like a goalie stops the puck. It’s a phenomenal performance that pushes James across the line from actor to star.
Jeffrey also gives the film ample spunk in her dynamic performance as Jayme, who finds herself a target from both sides of the racial divide for coming from a mixed family, while Lanette Ware and Jeremiah Sparks add nice turns as Mattie’s parents as they illuminate the humble, modest origins of the protagonist. The film’s fullest supporting performance, finally, comes from Cara Ricketts as Mrs. Doucette, the lone voice of reason at Carl Harbour High, who offers selfless guidance to the young cast with ample passion and watches in horror as the kids turn the school into Sal’s Pizzeria with their recess race riots. She’s the voice that urges the audience to wake up.
Across the Line dares to confront the complexity of race in the age of presumed political correctness, inclusion, and affirmative action, and the film lets Mattie’s story admirably convey the divides that young black students face in various arenas, be they school or sport. Across the Line hits every thematic nail on the head, but it does so at the expense of convincing natural dialogue as the students exchange racist barbs and provoke one another to show that violent racism still exists in Canada. The script often echoes histrionic parodies of Crash as it tells audiences that, deep down, everyone’s a racist.
Across the Line makes a powerful study for black and white tensions, and while Mattie’s story is strong and vital, the script diminishes the opportunity for using the story of Carl Harbour High to further discussion by reducing all the white characters to one-note crackers. Full, dynamic characters on both sides of the fight help audiences see both races embodied within human beings, rather than stock characters. A hockey game is much more exciting with two equally matched teams, and since Mattie’s team brings the fight so strongly, one wishes that a balanced challenge would let this film be the confrontation Canadian film needs. As a fight, though, this explosive and provocative film is a step towards a conversation.
Across the Line screened at the Canadian Film Festival as the Closing Night Selection.
It screens at the Canadian Indie Film Series at select Landmark theatres on Wednesday, April 6 and opens in theatres on Friday, April 8.