In “Through Black Spruce,” an adaptation of Joseph Boyden’s Giller Prize-winning novel, “Yellowstone” actress Tanaya Beatty stars as Annie Bird, a Cree woman from James Bay who travels to Toronto in search of her twin sister Suzanne, a model who disappeared without a trace.
As Annie explores the dark underbelly of the city’s fashion scene at home in Moosonee her Uncle Will (Mohawk actor Brandon Oakes) runs afoul of local drug dealers. They think Suzanne’s boyfriend ripped them off and want to talk to her about where he is. When Will won’t tell them he is beaten within an inch of his life.
“Through Black Spruce” comes with the weight of a backstory unrelated to what we see on the screen. The film, opening amid controversy over Boyden’s Indigenous identity and directed by Don McKellar, who is not indigenous, comes at a flashpoint in our cultural history regarding First Nations filmmakers and artists and who should tell their stories.
“Through Black Spruce’s” story touches on important issues. Annie’s grief over her missing sister puts a human face on the plight of missing First Nations women whose stories are rarely told let alone solved. The second story, Uncle Will’s struggle between the traditional and modern world, is played out in an interesting encounter with First Nations couple (Tantoo Cardinal and Edmund Metatawabin) in the deep woods.
As a narrative “Through Black Spruce” is split, connected in spirit, but separate. The story zig zags between the Toronto and Moosonee sections, laid out linearly. McKellar cuts back and forth, doling out the stories but the technique sometimes slows the film’s momentum.
More interesting than the structure are the performances. In subtle ways Beatty and Oakes both find psychological and cultural context for their characters, a framework missing from the script. As Annie, Beatty is a haunting and haunted presence. Oakes brings Will’s struggle with alcohol to vivid life.