Producers: Gharrett Patrick Paon, Julie Baldassi and Bretten Hannam Director: Bretten Hannam Screenplay: Bretten Hannam Cast: Phillip Lewitski, Joshua Odjick, Avery Winters-Anthony, Michael Greyeyes, Savonna Spracklin, Joel Thomas Hynes, Jordan Poole, Samuel Davison, Steve Lund and Becky Julian Distributor: Hulu
Bretten Hannam’s second feature, an expansion of a 2019 short film recognized with a Screen Nova Scotia award, is a combination of coming-of-age, coming-out and road trip movie in which the protagonist embraces both his tribal and sexual identities. With its rough-hewn visual beauty and sensitive narrative touch, “Wildhood” is an affecting portrait of youth inching toward maturity.
It opens with mixed-race Link (Phillip Lewitski) trying to bleach away the Mi’kmaq heritage of his mother Sarah (Savonna Spracklin) by dyeing his hair platinum blonde, helped by his eager younger half-brother Travis (Avery Winters-Anthony). They live with their abusive father Arvin (Joel Thomas Hynes) in a remote, run-down house with a rubbish-strewn yard, and are a rebellious pair. When the police catch them stealing metal fixtures from an abandoned building, Arvin takes out his anger physically on them both, but it’s Link who gets the worst of it.
Retreating into Arvin’s bedroom, he finds a cache of letters written to him by Sarah, whom his father had told him was dead. Furious, he runs out of the house with Travis at his heels, locks Arvin in and takes off on foot, setting his father’s truck ablaze before departing.
The two boys trudge down the road with no goal but finding Sarah, though Link has no notion of how, only the faraway return address on a letter. At a convenience store where they can’t afford to buy anything, they run into Pasmay (Joshua Odjick), a Mi’kmaq youth with an open and generous nature. Despite Link’s surliness he offers them a ride in his beat-up truck, and eventually accompanies them in their search for Sarah even after the vehicle conks out.
The trio follow the clues they accumulate along the way from people who had had contact with Sarah, and eventually a reunion occurs. But it represents the culmination of just one aspect of the journey of self-discovery Link has been on: the embrace of his Mi’kmaq roots, a culture that Pasmay helps him to understand and appreciate. There’s a nice scene in which Link awakens one morning to find Pasmay engaged in a tribal dance, and after some initial reluctance tries to copy the moves. Becky Julian, as an elderly, pensive Mi’kmaq woman, appears on several occasions, representing the tradition Link has until now sought to ignore, and Michael Greyeyes, as a genial, weathered fellow who gives the young trio a lift, plays a similar role. Spracklin brings depth of feeling to the final reunion scene.
The other aspect of Link’s coming to terms with who he is arises from the fact that Pasmay is a two-spirit person rejected by his own family, and he and Link grow increasingly close as their journey goes on. There are several moments along the way—including a dip in a lake—where their mutual curiosity is aroused, but the culmination comes in a scene under a waterfall in which they share a passionate embrace; these are shot by cinematographer Guy Godfree with almost painterly grace, using the play of light and shade on their youthful bodies to strikingly artistic effect.
The linchpin of the film is Lewitski, who makes Link a presence both combustible and vulnerable, but Odjick brings an equally important degree of natural openness to Pasmay, and Winters-Anthony some mischievousness to the mix. The film obviously was made with modest resources, but Michael Pierson’s production design and Emlyn Murray’s costumes are spot-on, with a dash of color provided by Pasmay’s Mi’kmaq dance garb, and, as noted, Godfree’s Nova Scotia-shot camerawork adds elegant touches to an overall realistic look. The editing by Shaun Rykiss can be choppy, but Neil Haverty’s score includes emotionally resonant beats.
“Wildhood” may sound familiar in terms of its general trajectory, but the unique elements in Hannam’s script make it distinctive as well as moving.