Published on May 30th, 2019 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Falls Around Her
Falls Around Her, starring the enormously talented Tantoo Cardinal, gives her little to work with. There might be a good movie buried in there somewhere.
Falls Around Her, the new drama from Anishinaabe filmmaker Darlene Naponse, is certainly well-intentioned. The film, shot and set in the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation reserve outside of Sudbury, Ontario, clearly has something on its mind, but that something is so frustratingly vague and devoid of nuance that the best word I can use to describe its thesis is exactly that: “Something.” There’s an interesting movie buried somewhere deep underneath the awkward, clunky execution, but it is only revealed in slight, de-contextualized glimpses. Disappointing, because its premise had a remarkable amount of promise.
Starring the enormously talented Canadian actress Tantoo Cardinal, who has had a successful and varied career performing in such mainstream hits like Dances With Wolves and Legends of the Fall, as well as provocative Indigenous-driven Canadian films, Falls Around Her tells the story of a successful rock star, Mary, who retires and revisits her old stomping grounds. Her music, as we get a faint glimpse of in the opening scene, is encumbered by the rebellious spirit of her Indigenous identity. I suppose (so much of this film had me supposing, guessing, filling in the blanks, etc.) that she is unsatisfied with her city life and is beginning to feel like a fraud. The film juxtaposes her performance with these quasi-ethereal, Terrence Malick-wannabe shots of her basking in the glory of nature. I suppose that signifies her dissatisfaction. It’s about all we get on that front.
As the movie progresses, it gets progressively worse. What starts out as a somewhat interesting, if not obscure, character sketch turns into a farce of bad dialogue, head-scratchingly pointless scenes, and blatantly obnoxious emotional manipulation. She hangs out with some women (unclear if they are related or just good friends), engages in a half-baked romance with some guy whose name I never felt obligated to remember, and just kind of floats between feeling sorry for herself and being this wise, old sage.
It’s a confusing and paradoxical characterization, yet it’s the only one that, while thin, even remotely bears any dimension. The tertiary characters are performed with about as much nuance as a university lecture. The film shamelessly embraces “Tell, don’t show” which Naponse must have mixed up with the sturdier storytelling maxim conventionally taught in 10th grade English class. For example, there is a baffling scene in which Mary’s friend comforts her child because her father did not show up to hang out with her. What this scene has to do with anything is beyond me. Another scene involves a contrived confrontation with said friend over Mary’s reluctance to go back to the city and back to her career. Literally thirty seconds later, everyone is friends again and the film goes on like nothing happened. And that is what sums up this cinematic failure more than anything: meandering, pointless scenes with weak characterization that go no where and have absolutely zero connective tissue.
Tantoo Cardinal, while head and shoulders the best performance in the film (especially considering its her first starring role) clearly struggles because her character just floats from scene to scene and conversation to conversation with no real intention behind it. Additionally, her character has no discernable flaws beyond just being, I guess, existentially confused? She sprawls out on the floor and weeps for a beat in the film, but with no context or subtlety of character, the scene—which could be emotionally effective—is just flat as a board.
As the film reaches its third act, Mary finds herself embroiled in an awkwardly shoehorned political subplot involving a mining company and their egregiously prejudiced white company-men poisoning the reservation and threatening Mary (God knows why). It then suddenly decides to be some kind of suspense thriller with a pinch of domestic violence sprinkled in for good measure; an old beau comes to see her, seduces her, and then abruptly decides he needs to assault her in order to get her back on tour. These are just a few of many different hats this film tries on and absolutely zero of them fit or make any logical sense. At the end of the film, I simply wrote in my notes, “What is this movie even about?” I still have no idea.
As I said before, there is a good movie buried underneath all the nonsense. But a film of Falls Around Her’s nature requires a deeply skillful writer who can bring its setting and supporting characters to life and a director who has control of the tone and pacing. This movie is just all over the place—a truly disappointing misfire. If you want to support interesting Canadian cinema, skip this and check out Jasmine Mozaffari’s superior, incredibly nuanced depiction of Canadian small-town life Firecrackers. It is a lesson in sophisticated, nuance-driven character study that is relentless and uncompromising. Virtually everything that Falls Around Her isn’t.