(Canada, 108 min.)
Dir. Michelle Ouellet, Writ. Nicholas Carella
Starring: David Alpay, Sara Canning, Kaniehtiio Horn, Andrew Francis, David Kaye, Nicholas Carella, Jameson Parker, Brian Markinson
Prodigals is a new stage to screen production featuring a complicated legal trial and an even trickier romantic triangle. While the courtroom scenes might reveal the film’s theatrical origins, director Michelle Ouellet and writer Nicholas Carella open up the material remarkably. Who knew the quiet steel town of Sault Ste. Marie could be a backdrop for bigger drama? The Soo once again gets a starring role after its breakout turn in Edwin Boyd and its bargain bin appearance in Compulsion. Ouellet gives the Soo a crisp sense of place with Prodigals, particularly in the spicy Italian attitude that gives provides the city’s best flavours. Whatever one makes of the courtroom drama or the love story, one must admire the authentic character of the surroundings.
Ouellet shoots the quiet city from just about the most unflattering angles she can find. Expect many shots of Algoma Steel and the billows of smoke that pump across the city leaving trails above long abandoned buildings. Add the knee-high snowbanks and the visible condensation of the actors’ breath in the frigid temperatures, and the Soo doesn’t look like such an inviting place. Sure, it has nice angles and a cute downtown core, but it’s experiencing the same depression faced by countless northern communities in Ontario that once thrived with industry. It’s no wonder that kids like Wesley (David Alpay) left for Toronto in such of a better life.
Wesley returns to the Soo when a friend, Benny (David Kaye), faces a nasty murder charge. The prospects don’t look good since there’s a video of Benny beating the crap out of the victim just before he died, yet Wesley promises to use his big city charm to get him off the hook. There’s just one problem: Wesley isn’t a lawyer and he’s too proud to let his friends know that he came back a nobody.
All of Wesley’s friends seem to have stayed in the same postal codes in which they grew up. Nina (Kaniehtiio Horn), Benny’s sister, has a family with a small kid and a deadbeat husband (Andrew Francis), while their friend Greg (James Parker) is perfectly happy working part time at The Beer Store and living with his mom. Moving up, but also moving down, is Wesley’s former flame Jen (Sara Canning), who is doing well running the local watering hole. She’s rebounded from Wesley their mutual friend Nips (played by Carella), though, who might be the definition of settling with her perfectly comfortable, plain, ordinary lifestyle. Wesley puts himself on trial in his effort to save Benny as he weighs the mitigating and aggravating circumstances in his choice to leave home and abandon Jen for a dream that never panned out. This could have been him, either the dead guy or the one facing life.
Prodigals develops the trial and Wesley/Jen’s reunion in tandem and throws equal numbers of twists and bargaining chips to complicate judgement. Wesley’s role in the trial is limited to research and shadowing—and he faces impersonation charges if he addresses the jury and if Benny’s lawyer (Brian Markinson) finds him out—but the premise often strains credibility despite his attempt to play cool. With the case drawing so much attention in such a small headline-free city, the film needs someone watching the case to question Wesley’s presence to make the ruse more credible. (A plot point that might have added some spice, too.)
The stakes feel higher and more real in the push and pull courtship with Jen, who resists making nice after being abandoned. Alpay feels more comfortable in his scenes with Canning than he does in the courtroom, while Ouellet similarly shows more strengths in the film’s intimate moments. While the trial scenes mostly avoid Law & Order theatrics, there’s a static caginess to the courtroom in Prodigals, albeit one with ample precedent in legal dramas. Canning arguably steals the film from Alpay and Prodigals is the better for it as Jen’s inner conflict and heartfelt loyalty to her hometown underscore the small town sense of betrayal in Wesley’s choice to ditch her for big city life.
The strength of Canning’s performance draws out the great interconnection between place and character in Prodigals. Ouellet and Carella pepper the film with personalities big and small who give Wesley a taste of the life of his hometown and remind him that it’s not the physical surroundings or perceived freshness of a city that defines it, but rather the people and community that give it character. Prodigals has a tangible local identity we don’t see enough in Canadian movies these days. It’s nice to watch something that looks and feels real.
Prodigals opens in Toronto at the Carlton on June 8 and hits digital on Tuesday, June 12.