Bones of Crows

Bones of Crows Review: A Stirring Testament to Resilience and Persistence

Canada’s residential school system is, without a doubt, our country’s greatest shame. Marie Clements’ new drama Bones of Crows takes a long, hard look at the life-long and generational trauma instilled by the racist institution and one woman’s life-long fight for justice and accountability. A stirring indictment of colonialization and testament to resilience and persistence, the film is made all the more powerful by Grace Dove’s richly layered central performance as Cree matriarch Aline Spears.

The film opens in 1920s Manitoba and follows a young Spears (where she is portrayed by a stellar Summer Testawich), whose idyllic childhood is cut short when she and her siblings are forcibly removed – via horrific threats and vile extortion – and sent to a residential school. Mental, physical and sexual abuse is rampant, and the cultural suppression cruel and constant. The trauma instilled by the actions of the priests and nuns is truly appalling and as an audience, you hope that these experiences are exaggerated for dramatic effect. But we know they reflect the reality and the history of such institutions. Spears may be fictional but her experiences, sadly, are not.

Aline survives the hostility and horror and goes on to enrol in the military at the outbreak of World War II (where she is now portrayed by Dove). Despite the system’s attempt to eradicate her mother tongue, her fluency in Cree makes Spears a valuable code talker in the Canadian Air Force – an irony not lost on the film or the viewer. Though her service is her focus, she remains haunted by her years at the school and the permanent damage done to her physically and mentally.

As her life unfolds in front of us, from her time in the war to the present, we see Spears fall in love, marry, have children, join the Indigenous delegation that met with the Pope in Vatican City, and more – and we watch as she fights every day to survive and even, miraculously, to thrive.

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Throughout its runtime, Bones of Crows touches upon many important aspects of inter-generational trauma and the effect it has on an individual, but also on those around them. We see Spears’ husband struggling with crippling PTSD, we see her younger sister falling through the cracks of the legal system and her community, and we see Aline herself trying to balance the needs of others with her own mental health needs. Like many matriarchs, her own history of harm is forced to the back burner while she supports others but it is always there, lurking.

The film, which premiered at TIFF 2022, presents some truly great supporting performances alongside Dove including Rémy Girard, Gail Maurice, Alyssa Wapanatâhk, Glen Gould, Carla Rae, Cara Gee, Karine Vanasse, and Phillip Forest Lewitski. There’s even a cameo by iconic filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin. Every single performer commits and seems equally invested in telling this necessary and moving story. Bones also presents some truly stunning and haunting visuals, courtesy of cinematographer Vince Arvidson, which serves to both elevate the feature but also to centre it in familiar Canadian locales and vistas.

While there are elements in the latter half of the film that lean too far into the melodrama, director Clements keeps a tight rein on the narrative, preventing it from ever feeling over-blown or bloated. The story itself is immense in its scope but ultimately feels intimate in its telling. The focus remains on the strength of Aline Spears but its overall message is one that can be applied to all Indigenous peoples across Canada. Despite the wrongs done to those communities – the harm, the loss, and the pain – Bones of Crows reminds us all of their ability to persist and retain their culture and pride, despite a system designed to marginalize and subjugate them.

For too long, stories like Spears’ were swept under the carpet. As a society, we have been too afraid to confront our nation’s history of cultural genocide and the unimaginable harm done to generations. But the residential school system and its horrible legacy are finally something we’re beginning to face, to own, and to understand. Bones of Crows is a powerful part of that educational journey but Clements’ film also serves as a heartfelt tribute to all survivors and all those who are holding the powers that be to account.

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Bones of Crows is in theatres now.



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