The saga is one that crosses all cultures; a son rejects his heritage and family only to return for redemption. Yet the particulars, the setting, the essence of Johnny Tootall is wholly indigenous. As the honored eldest child of the chief, Johnny is tortured by the ghosts of his past—literally and figuratively—but eventually freed through these very same spirits.
The movie, directed by Shirley Cheechoo, stars two of the most appealing and well-known native actors in North America, Adam Beach and Nathaniel Arcand. Produced for Canadian television, Johnny Tootall has transcended its cable network origins to win Best Picture, Best Actor (Beach) and Best Supporting Actor (Arcand) at the 2005 American Indian Film Festival, the most prestigious honors in indigenous film. Likewise, it has earned further acclaim as it continues to be a favorite on the native film festival circuit.
Although the film occasionally succumbs to made-for-TV clichés, Cheechoo skillfully captures the visual splendor of British Columbia while enabling her lead actors to embrace their characters and turn in several of the finest performances of their careers. The result is an absorbing melodrama involving the struggle between two brothers, their tribal customs, the woman they both love, and a spiritual reawakening.
As Johnny, Adam Beach breaks free of being typecast in bland roles and shows how the "good son" has as much inner angst as his more openly hostile sibling. He's rejected his aboriginal traditions to become a soldier and fight in Bosnia where he's haunted by the unintentional killing of a child. Tormented by his past and what he's subsequently become, he returns home to British Columbia to face another "war"—a war over land and the preservation of a way of life—led by his brother against their white neighbors.
When Nathaniel Arcand, portraying his brother, RT, first enters the scene, he is immediately unlikable; gloating how he married and is raising a child with Johnny's former lover. As the classic angry young man, he challenges the corporate authority figures by literally standing in the way of their coveted "progress." Just as it seems RT is being relegated to being a jerk, however, Arcand subtly reveals the character's vulnerability and good intentions.
Arcand and Beach carry this story, with Arcand redeeming RT from a predictable malcontent to misunderstood hero. The plot hinges on the bond between the two; the love-hate-envy-fear dynamics that conclude with one tragedy and one salvation. In fact, in a refreshing turn of events, it is Johnny, not his brother, who is ultimately challenged by moral ambivalence.
Unfortunately, actress Alex Rice doesn't have much to do onscreen other than create the sexual tension between the brothers; whereas the tedious presence of the two-dimensional white characters pales against the much more interesting natives. None of the non-native antagonists provides depth, which is too bad, since the conflict involving competing interests of tribal rights versus economic concerns could have enriched the drama. Sheila Tousey, as the mother, is her usual awesome self. Tousey can take any role, no matter how small, and have you absorbed by her unassuming candor; in Tootall she's both weary and strong, traditional but thoroughly contemporary.
In this production, Cheechoo shows she's an actor's director. An actress herself, her characters dominate the screen even surpassing the backdrop of the scenic northwest. Where Johnny Tootall misses the mark—stereotyped bad guys, unrealized plot lines—it doesn't detract significantly. By the end of the movie, you want to see more; the essential mark of a good story.
The film achieves something else beyond its original intent. Written, acted and directed by natives, it breaks with the stereotypical movie depictions of Indians in buckskin and shows contemporary, fully-developed aboriginal characters. Cheechoo, a Canadian Cree, is among a tenacious group of indigenous filmmakers creating some of the more interesting independent movies coming out of North America.Tootall is indicative of this growing genre of native directors, screenwriters and actors developing their own productions in their own voice after a century of being relegated to back lots and war paint. Their numbers and their budgets may be small, but through their perseverance, their influence on changing perceptions is expanding with each quality production.
Johnny Tootall may have been conceived as pedestrian cable-TV fare for an impassive public. Instead, it has gained the respect of film aficionados within the native film establishment and beyond.
Producer: Danielle Prohom Olson; Cynthia Chapman
Director: Shirley Cheechoo
Screenplay: Shirley Cheechoo & Andrew Genaille
Cast: Adam Beach, Nathaniel Arcand, Alex Rice, Sheila Marie Tousey, Randi Knighton
DVDs are available for purchase on the Johnny Tootall website. To obtain a copy and learn more about the film, go to:www. johnnytootall.com