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A road movie without the road

Hank Williams First Nation offers northern exposure

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What: Hank Williams First Nation

Reel Alternatives Cinema Series

Where: Lost Lake Park

When: Friday, Aug. 12

Tickets: $5 (kids under 12 free)

There are two outdoor summer cinema series in Whistler with very different goals and ideals.

There’s the Thursday night Lunafliks series presented by LUNA, a municipal organization that provides alcohol-free Late and Unique Nighttime Alternatives to the bar and club scene for young adults, which goes for the biggest bang for the buck, bringing in high-octane crowd pleasers such as Fight Club and tonight’s offering, Kung Fu Hustle .

And then there’s the Whistler Film Festival Society’s summer Reel Alternatives cinema series, which aims to expose Whistler audiences to more obscure film festival-style fare.

Both aspire to entertain. Both showcase under the stars on the grassy shores of Lost Lake. Both are a great way to spend an evening. One crucial difference is that LUNA brings in films you’ve seen over and over again and still love, whereas Reel Alternatives brings in films you may never have the chance to see again.

Tomorrow night’s Reel Alternatives film, Hank Williams First Nation , is the kind of low budget, quiet Canadian fare that may only cross Whistler’s path this one time.

The film is billed as a comedy about a Cree elder who, accompanied by his 17-year-old nephew, undertakes a journey to visit the grave of his hero Hank Williams in Nashville, Tennessee before he dies. And while this plot turn does indeed occur, the film takes an unpredictable route by not going on the road with the duo, choosing instead to stay home and follow life in the northern community that they leave behind.

Brief snippets of the trip are glimpsed through montages of the elder and the youth gazing out the bus window, or sauntering around Alberta winter-scapes that pose as Montana, but the majority of the film takes place in an unnamed location represented by the real life Woodland Cree First Nation in Peace River, Alta.

Back at home life simply goes on for wise elder Adelard Fox, the catalyst who sets the film in motion through his sage advice to his grandson Jacob to accompany his uncle to Nashville. Life also goes on for sister Sarah Fox, who is preparing for high-school graduation and holding feelings about her wayward mother and absentee father at bay. Life goes on for the town goofball Huey, who supports himself with wacky schemes, and the voice of Cree Nation ("not ‘Cremation,’ heh, heh") radio that meanders through announcements about radio bingo winners, school bus mechanicals and country music requests.

Conditioned by Hollywood blockbuster mad-gallop pacing, it takes a while to adjust to the unpretentious loping gait of Hank Williams First Nation . The film doesn’t cut away from one-sided phone conversations, or watching characters sit and think, or eat a pickled egg.

And production-wise, there’s definitely no mistaking this film for a glossy high-budget flick. Things are a little ragged around the edges in all categories, from sound to camera work.

The film’s one extravagance was in acquiring accomplished actor Gordon Tootoosis to star as Adelard, a successful construction company owner who hasn’t lost touch with his heritage. Seasoned through roles in such films as Legends Of The Fall , Tootoosis can say more with a furrowing of the brow than many actors can with an entire scripted monologue.

The film’s other strength is its realistic, low-key handling of modern First Nations life. Problems with alcoholism and "partying" on the reserve are alluded to, but never take centre stage. A conversation between Adelard and his cousin Gordon eases along in Cree, following which Adelard and the film make a seamless transition back to English. The symbolism of the scene is profound.

With seemingly endless reports of social problems inherent to modern First Nations communities, it is refreshing to see a portrayal of First Nations life where those issues are not front-and-centre. The bare realism, likely a result of the low budget, instead works in the film’s favour here, giving it an almost documentary feel.

In this vein, the unpredictable turn taken by Jacob and his uncle is less a plot device than a gentle unveiling of the clichés and conventions of the classic road trip flick. Most films proceed in a straight line, but life and Hank Williams First Nation , does not.

Hank Williams First Nation screens at Lost Lake Park Friday, Aug. 12 at dusk (9:30-10 p.m.). Audience members must supply their own seating. The event kicks off at 8 p.m. with picnic food available for purchase and live music. Tickets are $5, with kids under 12 free. The film is rated PG.

In case of rain the presentation will screen at Millennium Place at 9 p.m. For up to date information go to www.whistlerfilmfestival.com.

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