As one of many Canadian films making its premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, The Lesser Blessed is one that may unfortunately be overlooked. While not boasting the star power or production capital of some of this year’s marquee pictures, the film does offer an intimate and bleak tale that will certainly register emotionally with anyone who has the opportunity to check it out.
Written and directed by Ukrainian filmmaker Anita Doron—and based on the novel by Richard Van Camp—The Lesser Blessed features a largely Canadian cast including Degrassi-star Chloe Rose, Joel Evans, Kiowa Gordon, and Benjamin Bratt, and follows the story of Larry Sole (Evans), a socially maladjusted First Nations teenager living with his mother in rural Northwest Territories. Hiding a terrible secret, Larry exists in isolation, adoring his classmate Juliet Hope (Rose) from afar until he befriends a charismatic young man named Johnny Beck (Gordon), who brings him closer to the object of his affections.
A tale of social, cultural, and emotional isolation, The Lesser Blessed is a film as bleak as the arctic tundra in which it is meant to take place—despite being filmed in Sudbury, Ontario. It is an emotional tale of a personal struggle, but at the same time highlights much of the difficulties endured by First Nations teens. And by that I am not merely alluding to well-known issues such as substance abuse—because that is an issue of youth in general, not exclusive to Canadian Aboriginals—but issues of isolation, marginalization, spiritual separation, and overall injustice.
While on paper the story may sound like the basis of a silly teenage romantic-comedy, The Lesser Blessed is an incredibly dark film that touches on very bleak subject matter. The hopelessness and limited horizons of life in the North are a reality for every character in this film, and as such, everyone suffers. Abuse is rampant, teenage pregnancy is normalized, and pretty much every kid is on something. But what truly resonates here is that as bad as things are, they are eternally worse for an outsider.
For Evans’ Larry Sole, he is an eternal outsider, largely rejected by his classmates, and for the most part, separated from his culture. His lone cultural tether is his mother’s boyfriend Jed—played in the background of the proceedings by Benjamin Bratt—and even he is barely around. Evans does a good job playing the lanky, awkward First Nations teen, though his performance isn’t a huge stand out in this film. It merely matches everything else—the mood, the environment, the horizon of it all. Sole is bleak, dark, and subdued, and Evans’ performance is delivered in kind.
In terms of story, The Lesser Blessed is steeped in tragedy, pain, and loss. There is no happy ending to the proceedings, only a manner of peace. And even that can only come following a harrowing amount of pain. Like Jung’s concept of the “shadow’s descent,” the characters throughout this film—though most pronouncedly, the main character, Larry Sole—are forced to face their fears and insecurities in order to find that peace. But the quest, as harrowing as it is, is well depicted in this film and is a moving experience to watch.
Doron is able to bring the essence of Van Camp’s barren story to life through a celluloid experience that doesn’t require grand exposition or overt emotionality. Relying on atmosphere, restraint, and performances steeped in raw human emotion, The Lesser Blessed succeeds primarily because it understands its emotional core and sticks to it, offering simplicity of story, but not of concept or emotion. One of the most riveting Canadian films of TIFF 2012, The Lesser Blessed may not offer all that much, but what it offers truly succeeds.