This year’s Mardi Gras Film Festival, with a focus on queer Indigenous stories, opens with two-spirit filmmaker Bretten Hannam’s captivating Wildhood, which world premiered at last year’s TIFF.
Mixed-race two-spirit teenager Link (Phillip Lewitski) and his younger half-brother Travis (Avery Winters-Anthony), leave their abusive white father on a search for Link’s long-presumed-dead mother. Along the way, they encounter a two-spirit pow wow dancer and drifter, Pasmay (Joshua Odjick), who helps Link to reconnect with his Mi’kmaq heritage and the land.
Hannam enlivens familiar coming-of-age and queer-awakening narratives by weaving in an exploration of Link’s cultural heritage. As someone who has been denied much by his aggressive father, the absence of a mother, and the lack of education about who he is and where he comes from, Link starts out as an angry, defensive teenager who learns to open up to the world around him under the gaze of the nonjudgmental Pasmay. Lewitski makes the most of Link’s explosive character, with outbursts of anger—and joy as he throws a cup of urine at his father—which spring out at unexpected moments, but it’s watching him slowly thaw when surrounded by people with compassion that makes his performance particularly memorable.
Link’s journey to healing and self-acceptance is intricately tied to the land and the discovery of his culture. As a child who felt he had nothing, he comes to find himself unexpectedly rich with connections. His window into this world is Pasmay.
A sweet sadness fills Odjick’s portrayal of Pasmay, and his performance is well-balanced, managing to be a sympathetic love interest but with enough streetwise edges to feel real. Pasmay turns his lessons in culture into a gentle flirtation and teaching Link the language and customs of the Mi’kmaq is an exercise in vulnerability, and through that vulnerability they become closer. Hannam doesn’t overplay their relationship, allowing it to build in a slow, organic way throughout the film without taking a linear path.
Revelations about Link’s mother and what happened to her carefully highlight the injustices inflicted on Indigenous people whose land was never ceded; something that will resonate with MGFF’s Australian audience. Hannam fills Wildhood with big issues, but always on a personal scale. It’s a film that’s definitely worth seeing on the big screen if you can, with cinematographer Guy Godfree’s beautiful visuals matched by the touching emotional beats.
Wildhood has a quiet grace about it. I was reminded of Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-winning Nomadland, both by the stunning sunsets and vistas of Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley and also by the sense of nature’s calm, as well as the intimacy of Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight. Hannam takes a familiar narrative and elevates it to something vital.
By Chad Armstrong
Wildhood gets its Australian premiere at the Opening Night Gala of the Mardi Gras Film Festival 2022 on February 17th at 7pm, plus Q&A with Phillip Lewitski. Tickets and more details available on the MGFF website.