Stranded At The Top

After a four decade career Tantoo Cardinal finally gets star  billing. Too bad the movie’s weak

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Falls Around Her
Rainbow Cinemas Studio 7

Opens Friday 7

It’s a bit surprising that in a career spanning four decades, Tantoo Cardinal has seldom, if ever, been the lead. If there’s something to commend Falls Around Her for, it’s that it places the actress front and center in nearly every scene.

Beyond that, there’s not much o celebrate.

Falls Around Her is like an Eric Rohmer film set on a reservation in the middle of winter. But while the French master hints at larger-than-life personalities and inner turmoil using tiny bits of information, writer/director Darlene Naponse (Every Emotion Costs) fleshes out her characters broadly and awkwardly.

Cardinal is Mary Birchbark, a musician cut from the same cloth as Buffy Sainte-Marie. After one gig like any other, Mary drops her successful career and heads to a rundown cabin in Northern Ontario. Friends from the reservation are happy to see Mary, but don’t understand her motivations and don’t buy her “recharging batteries” spiel.

Very, very, very slowly we discover a few things about Mary: she has a fraught relationship with her manager, doesn’t play well with others and her small inner-circle has good reasons to be concerned about her behavior. Mary is an introvert with an extrovert’s job (hmm, is that this week’s official theme?), a homebody by nature who spends most of her time on the road and the relocation seems an attempt to reclaim her independence.

Tantoo Cardinal keeps the film watchable even when it’s dryer than a potato chip. She throws herself into the role and keeps it believable. Cardinal gets no support from the script (boilerplate dialogue would be an improvement), or the narrative.

Falls Around Her touches many issues First Nations peoples are dealing with — land rights and commodification of Indigenous art, for starters — but none of them is developed beyond lip service levels. The haphazard, tonally-jarring resolution feels unearned.

The main source of conflict —will Mary sing again? — doesn’t carry much weight since we’ve barely seen the artist on stage and have no idea what audiences would be missing. When the stakes are this low, the main character so guarded and the plot so bare, it’s challenging to become invested. Well, Cardinal tried.