In his debut feature Blackbird, Atlantic region filmmaker Jason Buxton takes a close and hard edged look at the clichés that rule the lives of teenagers in the new digital age and how those roles people create for themselves at the most dramatic and traumatic periods of their lives can forever alter their fates. It’s a successful and efficient look at how “innocent threats” can be interpreted in countless ways by people who not necessarily have their own agendas, but their own convictions and feelings about a given subject. And when that subject is the now almost sadly perennial threat of bullying and large scale school violence it leaves a sting that doesn’t go away immediately.
Connor Jessup stars as Sean Randall, a small town Pennsylvania teenager with a hunting loving father, who feels scorned and hurt after a brief flirtation with a hockey groupie girl (Alexia Fast) goes sour thanks to her brutish and oafish ex-boyfriend. As young teenagers are wont to do, Sean spills his guts online in the worst possible way: making threats to the safety of those around him. The true motives of Sean’s angry ranting are never made clear, but given his father’s stockpile of weapons and the feelings of the community at large, it’s enough to send Sean to a juvenile prison, leading him down a slippery road to a potential rehabilitation he might not have needed had he just talked to someone.
The early high school sequences are brimming with realness mixed with the kinds of clichés the film openly calls out as being inherent in everyday life. When the film becomes a look at how our justice systems are willing to carry out punishments without explanation and only with evidence or to Sean’s struggles during his imprisonment, there’s a bit of a disconnect. The film is still engaging, but it feels detached. In full disclosure, when I saw this film at TIFF last year, I thought this was a negative, but upon a rewatch I realize that’s kind of the point. Here is a young man who was struggling to get through one world and its stresses (beautifully conveyed by the always excellent Jessup, and also by Sean’s father, played by Michael Buie), but now he’s in a situation he understands even less. It’s punishing the alienated by alienating them further. It’s not easy to watch, but it has an immediacy that few films about at risk youth ever really approach.