“A universal story about the choices we make.”
Film Title: Empire of Dirt
Director: Peter Stebbings
Principle Cast: Cara Gee, Shay Eyre, Jennifer Podemski, Luke Kirby
Length: 99 Minutes
In Theatres: Starting November 22, in Vancouver January 31st 2014
After catching the public eye at several film festivals this year, including TIFF and ImagineNATIVE, Empire of Dirt has its theatrical release starting in Toronto, and will be released in other Canadian and US cities over the next few months.
Lena (Cara Gee) is a recovered addict and single mom, struggling to pay the bills in Toronto. When her thirteen-year-old daughter Peeka (Shay Eyre) overdoses, and child services get involved, Lena packs them up to flee to her hometown. With nowhere to turn, except to her estranged mother Minnie (Jennifer Podemski), she is forced to face her past.
An interesting central theme to the film is the importance of how life experiences shape us, and what emotional legacies we pass down to the next generation. In our increasingly me-centered world, this may seem obvious, but it’s actually a much-needed reminder to stop and think about our impact. Lena carries a generational pain down from her mother, and has to stop and examine what future she is providing her daughter.
I love that writer Shannon Masters has created not one, but three strong, interesting, real female lead characters. Director Peter Stebbings, who directed Woody Harrelson in Defendor and also played the lead role in one of my favourite Canadian films Separation, deftly directs the three different and layered female roles. Not every director necessarily gets the unique and complex nature of mother-daughter relationships.
It’s not a perfect film – addiction, returning home, and parents who say “don’t do what I did when I was your age” are all plot themes we’ve seen many times, and admittedly the film occasionally stumbles into the pitfalls of cliche. It’s only briefly mentioned that Lena’s father had been in a residential school, then it’s quickly side-stepped. If this subject had been a little more fleshed out, viewers less familiar with the history of Canadian residential schools would better understand Lena’s father’s suicide and their family’s legacy of pain.
And yet a quiet beauty lies in the performances, atmosphere and humanity of this film. Podemski veritably steals the screen with her perfectly stoic and yet fiercely loving portrayal of a younger-than-most grandmother. She alone is reason enough to see the film. Eyre is a close second, as a surpisingly natural and fluid actor for her young age. Gee was also good, but given her extensive theatre background and title of 2013 TIFF Rising Star, I would have liked to see her push herself further. Beyond individual performances, a cast is only as good as their chemistry together, and these three actresses are great together as a flawed but loving family.
Although it has a spot or two, Empire of Dirt is a moving portrait of three women, and ultimately, a universal story about the choices we make. If Podemski’s performance doesn’t make you tear up a bit, I know of a scene or two that surely will.