Peter Stebbings’ Empire of Dirt is something special. It’s the rare example of a Canadian film that’s able to balance universally relatable human problems while maintaining a cultural identity that makes it patently unique. It’s a story of three generations of First Nations women who bear the scars and burden of their unjustly looked down upon ethnicity, but it’s more importantly about how they deal with issues and situations that many marginalized people of any cultural background will suffer through in their lives. Best of all, it never lets those very issues drive the story, thanks to rich characters that are lovingly crafted and wonderfully acted to avoid any hint of unnecessary melodrama that could have derailed similar films in lesser hands.
Lena (TIFF 2013 Rising Star Cara Gee) has been toiling in dead end housekeeping jobs in Toronto for far too long trying to make ends meet and support her sullen, goth-y teenage daughter, Peeka (Shay Eyre). Lena spends plenty of time helping out a local community centre that caters to the city’s Native population, but despite being able to give out great advice to those who need it and having overcome her own addictions, she can’t heed her own words. Even worse, she can’t really stand up to her own daughter because what she sees frightens her. She sees Peeka heading down the same path she once went down.
The relationship between Lena and Peeka is established firmly in the early going. Gee does great work playing the exasperated mother at the end of her rope, and Eyre nails the unrepentant daughter who acts out any chance she gets. Peeka seems to be testing her mother at times almost to see if she can get to the level Lena once approached without going over the same edge.
Sadly, the edge does get approached, and after an afternoon with some ne’er do wells and partaking in huffing spray paint, Peeka becomes hospitalized. Already having lost too many jobs and worried for her daughter, the pair hitchhike to the small Northern Ontario town where Lena grew up. They return to the house of Lena’s mother, Minerva (Jennifer Podemski, who also produced), the woman who threw Lena out of the house when she got pregnant and drove her to the city where her daughter become a floundering model and an accomplished drug addict. Minerva never properly dealt with the death of Lena’s father, and herself spiralled into a gambling addiction that Lena has never forgiven her for.
While the tension between the family members is palpable and understandable – with more than enough blame to go around between the three of them – it’s how they react to the people around them in the town that creates most of the friction. Lena has returned home to a picture of small town life that’s been thoughtfully crafted by first time screenwriter Shannon Masters. Most times when people in these movies return home, everyone seems to have moved on without the main characters. Here, no one has moved past high school. They now have families and better paying jobs, but while Lena’s return is welcomed by some and hated by others, it’s like her presence never left the town.
Early on, Lena gets forced into a conversation with the Peeka’s father, a still hard partying but married police officer (played by Luke Kirby) that she maintained was dead. Being thrown out and leaving under harsh circumstances never allowed Lena a chance for any sort of closure to the relationship, once made even more difficult to come since both of their situations have changed. She’s also reunited with the town’s resident diminutive barkeep and former classmate Warren (Jordan Prentice), who seems to be the only person in town who ever really accepted Lena for who she was. But be it a tender friendship or a touch-and-go relationship with a former lover, Masters’ screenplay captures the surreal nature of going back inside of a time capsule that might have been best to stay buried. Lena hasn’t returned to repeat the past, but everyone and everything around her seems like it’s forcing her into such a situation.
As for Lena’s mother, Minerva isn’t as cold and cruel seeming as she probably once was towards her daughter. In fact, almost by her own admission, she’s a person who’s just starting to make an attempt at parenting now that her daughter has grown up and returned. It strengthens the chemistry between the three leads by creating an interesting dynamic: the oldest of the bunch still has little clue how to be a parent, Lena suffers at times from over parenting, and Peeka is at the point in her life when she could actually use more friendly advice than parenting.
While the actors are all working from a tight script, it’s Stebbings that brings out even more in the material, allowing for grace notes of subtle humour to permeate throughout the sometimes difficult to broach subject matter. With this and Defendor, Stebbings has begun to establish himself as a fine depicter of realism in everyday life. He understands the pain and suffering of his characters, but he also knows that there will be moments of dark and subtle humour. These are the kinds of moments that could be humorous to an outside observer, but not to the people involved without the benefit of hindsight.
And the fact that a white male director like Stebbings can deftly handle the undercurrent of First Nations identity and such fractured mother/daughter relationships, makes Empire of Dirt equally interesting. He never paints a squalid or sexist picture of their lives, but he never sugar coats their problems. And none of those individual problems are ever used as springboards for grandstanding epiphanies or teary breakdowns. They are handled with the delicate care of raw nerves that are dangerously exposed but are never being poked and prodded to goad the audience into an unnatural reaction. These are strong women pushed to their collective breaking points, but not knowing that their time together will even prove beneficial. In a year with a scant few major Canadian productions worth jumping up and taking notice of, this comes at a perfect time.
Note: Cara Gee and Jennifer Podemski will be participating in a Q&A following the 7:20pm performance of the film at Cineplex Yonge and Dundas this Friday (November 22nd), hosted by Dork Shelf’s Film and Performing Arts Editor, Andrew Parker.