If you are a fan of Hank Williams, this film isn't for you. Even if you hate country music, well, let me explain…
In Hank Williams First Nation, by Canadian filmmaker Aaron Sorensen, you will enjoy snowy panoramas of frolicking moose and capable performances by Gordon Tootoosis and Stacy DaSilva. That's the good part. The rest of the movie, unfortunately, is clumsily edited, meandering and strives mightily to be a poignant vignette sprinkled with glibness and a bit o' social significance. The soundtrack, which logically should be chock-full of Hank Williams at his best, includes only one of his songs—and even that isn't performed by the original artist.
So where did this film, which has received enough positive buzz to be developed into a television series on Canada's native network, APTN, go awry?
The story, such as it is, surrounds a Cree family living on a remote Alberta reserve brimming with love and heartache and irony and quirkiness. For reasons never quite understood, elder Martin Fox (Jimmy Herman) is determined to make a journey to Nashville to verify whether or not his hero, Hank Williams, is indeed dead. (The ORIGINAL Hank Williams, that is. Not his sorry-assed son who sang the intro to Monday Night Football.) His brother, Adelard (Gordon Tootoosis), convinces his 17-year-old grandson Jacob, played by the appealing Colin VanLoon, to accompany the old man on his cross continent trip on a Greyhound. Meanwhile, back home…Jacob's best friend is cast with a guy that looks to be about 35 years old (Bernard Starlight), but lo and behold, he's a nerdy high schooler. Who just happens to look 35.
Then there's Sarah. Stacy DaSilva's Sarah is the older sib of the bus-riding Jacob. She's smart—class valedictorian smart. She's mad at her boyfriend for being a "dick." Did I mention she's smart? Oh yeah, and her mom is coming to visit, but that's not good since she has been away for a long, long time and this fact makes Sarah weepingly embrace her teacher who oozes enough syrup to induce diabetic shock.
Cut to the starchy social worker who shows up at her grandparent's house to report that her mother is in rehab and has had a baby; thereby lobbying the aging patriarch to raise the child because adoption is such an undesirable option. We never see or hear a word about the wayward mom after this pivotal scene.
The plot continues to flip flop into more sub-texts of hanky-clutching moments, none of which will have you clutching your hanky. As a result, Hank Williams First Nation suffers from a classic case of filmus interruptus. The pleasure of the narrative and the depth of the characters are never realized; leaving you unsatisfied—annoyed at being teased with the offer of something wonderful. Like the brief episode alluding to Sarah and Jacob's mother. Indeed, it is painful when someone you love succumbs to addictions; but why should we care if the filmmaker didn't give us a periscope into who this woman is? Similarly, the Hank-chasing journey of the teen and the elder is slipped in periodically showing them peering out the Greyhound window. Funny thing is, every state they pass through looks like the same icy prairie. Last time I checked, Missouri looks nothin' like Alberta.
Contrasting the underdeveloped storyline is the overwritten dialogue that drops on your senses like a cartoon anvil. This is particularly true in the closing scene. We hear a sobbing Sarah eulogizing her beloved uncle; instead of feeling wrenching empathy, I found myself focused on how many times she sniffles. She needs the hanky a helluva lot more than I do.
Granted, this is Sorensen's first directorial effort, which allows for some rookie missteps. A non-native who worked in a northern aboriginal community, he ably presents his characters with nary a whiff of ethnic stereotyping. Furthermore, he is to be credited with living as large as his limited budget would allow—he wrote the screenplay, directed, produced, and edited; he even includes tunes he wrote and sings in the soundtrack.
Could it be possible my assessment is misguided?
After all, somehow, somewhere, somebody is impressed. More than a few somebodies, actually. Since its release more than a year ago, Hank Williams First Nation has landed a coveted spot on the upcoming APTN schedule. Sorensen received Best Director and Stacy DaSilva deservedly won Best Actress honors at last year's American Indian Film Festival, whereas the soundtrack took home the Best Music award at the 2005 Nashville Film Festival.
Still, to name and base a movie's central theme on a music legend and not include even one of his performances in the entire soundtrack…that is indicative of something, don't you think?
I don't think so. And I bet ol' Hank would agree.
Executive Producers: Frank Lovsin and Chief Joe Whitehead, Jr.
Director: Aaron James Sorensen
Screenplay: Aaron James Sorensen
Cast: Gordon Tootoosis, Stacy DaSilva, Bernard Starlight, Colin VanLoon, and Jimmy Herman
DVDs available through Amazon-Canada
Official website: www.HWFN.com