D: Barri Chase / 101m
Cast: Kiri Goodson, Roger Willie, Adam Beach, Stephanie Wallace, Ian Stevenson, Matthew Johnson, John Thomas, Dez Tillman, Jennifer Oswald
Jett (Goodson) is a young girl of mixed Native American and caucasian parentage who goes to live on the reservation of her mother’s people following the death of her father. Due to her dual heritage, she doesn’t fit in with the rest of the children her age, but her older brother, Tommy (Stevenson) – who happens to look more indigenous than Jett – fits in easily with some of the older boys. Jett is drawn to the surrounding trees and meadows, and has a deep affinity with nature. This affinity is recognised by her Uncle Ralph (Willie), who tells the tribal medicine man (Thomas) that Jett is a watchman, someone who can hear the voices of the wind, trees, plants, animals and water. The medicine man rejects this idea because Jett is a girl (though there is a precedent for it). But Jett becomes aware of the tribal myths and legends, and those surrounding nearby Witch’s Island, a place she becomes determined to visit. However, when she takes a canoe and travels to the island with her cousin Peedie (Johnson), the experience proves to be more of a test than she could ever have imagined.
From the outset it’s clear that first-time feature writer/director Barri Chase wants to make a lyrical, poetic movie about the ethereal nature of Native American mythology. To this end, there are plenty of shots of Jett communing with nature, walking in the woods and along the shoreline, and talking to the spirits that guide her. These are moments that are beautifully set up and shot by DoP AJ Young, and in terms of the journey of self-discovery that Jett embarks upon, eloquently reflect the spiritual nature of the world around her. But somewhere along the way, Chase has forgotten to make Jett’s journey as compelling as it should be. There are too many longueurs that ensure the movie’s sedate yet methodical rhythm grinds to a halt, and many of them involve Willie staring off into the distance – with meaning (though whatever meaning these longueurs have is never fully established). Chase has a terrific visual sense (unsurprising in someone with a background in fine art photography), but her narrative is like Jett’s canoe: it’s not long before it’s taking on water.
As a coming-of-age tale, the movie fares moderately well, but Chase lacks the experience to tie all the elements of her story together in a way that makes everything feel organic. There are several strands on show, and one that relates to the Fort Gang boys (the group Tommy falls in with) takes up too much time and peters out in terms of its importance to the overall story. Likewise, the problems Jett’s mother, Onie (Wallace), is facing trying to hold down a job: ultimately it’s one sub-plot too many. As for the performances, Willie is reticent and aloof (even from Jett at times), while Beach, as an historian who lives on Witch’s Island, is required to be enigmatic, but it’s an approach that is hampered by Chase not really knowing what to do with the character once he’s introduced. Goodson, initially, seems a perfect choice for the role of Jett, but she often looks uncomfortable, and there are times when the appropriate emotion, or response, in a scene escapes her. Chase doesn’t have a solution to this, or to several other issues, and so the movie stutters from scene to scene trying to build up a momentum that it can’t achieve. In the end, it remains enigmatic about tribal myths and customs, and never becomes as compelling as it should be.
Rating: 4/10 – sometimes, the format of a movie stops it from being all it can be, and this is the case with The Watchman’s Canoe, a movie that would have been more effective as a short; though beautiful to watch, the material isn’t strong enough to support anything but the most basic of ideas, and even then it does so falteringly and inconsistently – which is a shame, as Chase’s basic concept is a sound one.