Director: Aaron James Sorensen
Starring: Gordon Tootoosis
Hank Williams First Nation is a harmless and occasionally charming movie that seems to want less to tell you a story than to paint an open-ended portrait of a community. I couldn’t help but think while I watched it that while it didn’t amount to much as a movie, it would make for an effective pilot for a TV series. It wasn’t much of a surprise then when I learned that a year after the film was made, a TV series was spun off from it.
The film takes place on a reservation in Alberta and focuses primarily on one family. Sarah (Stacy Da Silva) and Jacob (Colin Van Loon) Fox are two teenagers being raised by their grandparents (Gordon Tootoosis and Edna Rain). Sarah excels as a student and longs for affection from her cheating boyfriend and her absentee mother. Jacob is a poet with dreams of getting away, though he knows that everyone on the reservation claims to want to get away but never succeeds. He gets his chance to get off the reservation when his grandfather asks him to go to Nashville to accompany his elderly Uncle Martin (Jimmy Herman) who wants to visit the grave of Hank Williams.
While Jacob and Martin make their way through the States, Sarah navigates her own personal turmoil. She had been looking forward to a visit from her mother, who doesn’t show up, and confesses to a teacher that she has no relationship with her father. She has a boyfriend but also engages in a tentative flirtation with Huey (Bernard Starlight), a student in name only whose focus is primarily on his business selling wood. Ever the opportunist, Huey also comes up with a way to use Jacob and Martin’s trip to raise money by convincing people that it’s a fundraising trip and having them sponsor it.
It’s difficult to give a really clear idea of what happens in this film, because the story is much more about establishing the feeling of a community than taking you from Point A to Point B. The film sort of wanders delicately around several plot threads but doesn’t have any narrative anchor. A film like this relies on the strength of its actors to center and guide it, which is where this film falls just short. For every solid performance, such as that delivered by Tootoosis, there’s another that’s just slightly off the mark. Truth be told, the most memorable performance comes courtesy of a character who is never seen onscreen, but only heard via his radio show.
Hank Williams First Nation is the kind of movie that will either speak to you or it won’t. Some will enjoy the gentle pace and folksy storytelling, while others will be irritated by the film’s slowness and the looseness of its story. While I didn’t especially like the movie, it did leave me with the impression that I would have enjoyed the TV series, which I think speaks to the unfinished feeling of the film as a whole.