The premise of this one intrigued me enough that I was willing to take a chance on it and hope for the best. I didn’t actually know much about it going in, which I think allowed me to take the journey it was offering even more completely, and I am glad that I did. I believe it works even better to not know what’s going to happen, and to discover events along with the characters who are going through them.
Blackbird introduces us to Sean Randall (Connor Jessup), a young goth teen who lives with his father, Ricky (Michael Buie) in a small Canadian town. One night, the police arrive with a warrant to search the premises, and take Sean into custody. The charge? Planning to execute a Columbine-like massacre against most members of his high school’s hockey team. The evidence Sean posted online and in texts, etc – in addition to his father’s gun collection – is stacked against him, and he is sent to a detention facility for minors to serve time while his lawyer works to convince him to plead guilty, rather than have his case go to trial.
Through flashbacks, we see Sean in the days and weeks leading up to his arrest. He is an outcast at school, and doesn’t want to live with his estranged father so much as he’d prefer to be back with his mother in the city. The only person who will talk to him is Deanna, a pretty popular girl at school, and she’ll only talk to him on the bus or online, when no one else is around. Her boyfriend becomes increasingly jealous of their unlikely friendship, and leads the rest of the hockey team in bullying attacks against Sean at any given opportunity. Sean even tries talking to a therapist, but no one can really get close to him and help him sort out the root of his anger. No one, that is, but Deanna, and her friendship is inconsistent at best.
Once inside the detention facility, things go from bad to worse for young Sean. The entire town turns out for his hearing, all of them convinced of his guilt and steeped in their own fears over what he may have been planning to do. The toughest kid on the inside beats him up and makes Sean his bitch for the duration of their stay, always reminding him that he is less than human, and that he’ll never belong, even with other troubled and convicted teens. Finally eager to get out and return home to his father, Sean chooses to plead guilty to crimes he didn’t commit, and face the added fear that his small community now has toward him.
One thing director Jason Buxton does with this film is to look at the sort of disconnect between the Young Offenders Act in Canada, and the troubled youth that it was put in place to protect, especially in this technological age of cell phones and social media. It definitely serves to help by protecting the identities of minors but, at the same time, it takes away the accused’s ability to speak for themselves. It removes their own voices from the system that was put in place to protect them. In Sean’s case, he had a lot of anger and unhappiness inside of him, and no way of expressing it nor of getting it out. He was encouraged to write it down, which he did, but that combined with text messages and videos on his phone, the music he listened to, the way he dressed – everything he did to express himself was used as evidence against him; proof positive that he had a plan.
And yet, had all of that been ignored, and tragedy had struck after all, everyone who could have prevented it would have been held accountable. So, in a sense, the very procedures that are in place to protect youth and the public, also serve to repress and suffocate potentially volatile emotions, and send the innocent to prison as a preventative measure – before they can act on those emotions and take things past the point of redemption. Sean had been ostracized by his small community even before the police showed up at his door that night, but by pleading guilty, he confirmed their irrational fears about him, which set him apart even more. He changed his looks and painted his room and tried to become a different person – which is really what the teen years are all about, anyway – but having no means of expressing himself only serves to keep those potentially volatile emotions bottled up and bubbling away inside him.
Another part of this whole film which was huge for me was in how dynamic the performances of the actors are. Connor Jessup is just electrifying to watch, and I look forward to following his career more closely from now on. He’s absolutely incredible on his own, and then add in the palpable chemistry between him and everyone he was paired with in the film – Michael Buie as his father, Alexia Fast as Deanna, and Alex Ozerov as Trevor, Sean’s main antagonist while in the detention centre – those three relationships in particular are central to Sean’s story, and the dynamic between Jessup and those actors are what truly create the heart of this film. Sean’s character could go either way between being likable or not-so-much, but it’s the relationships he builds with those three characters that truly define him and become central to the film overall. In losing so much, Sean strives to gain even more, and his journey is one worth taking. I’m so glad I got to go with him, and so proud of everyone involved with bringing this film to the screen. They’ve all done a wonderful job, and have given the rest of us much to discuss, even long after the end credits have rolled.
Blackbird is screening as part of the Toronto International Film Festival. You can check out the film’s official site here.