In North Mountain, Bretten Hannam’s debut feature, the director shakily refashioned the thriller genre by casting two-spirit Indigenous people in roles traditionally reserved for white men. The exciting, and at times clumsy, attempt at subversion put Hannam on the radar. Now, with Wildhood, which is adapted from Hannam’s 2019 short Wildfire and premiered at TIFF, the director (who uses gender-neutral pronouns) proves themselves a promising voice.
Wildhood combines the foundation of heartrending coming-of-age narratives with the feel-good elements of road trip flicks to create a delicate, not to mention visually appealing, sophomore film. Link (Phillip Lewitski), a two-spirit Mi’kmaw teenager, lives with his abusive father and his wry younger half-brother, Travis (Avery Winters-Anthony). When we meet the siblings, Travis is helping Link dye his brown locks blond. The tender moment has melancholic undertones: Link’s dye job is an attempt to hide his Indigenous roots, I think — to be more like Travis, who is not Mi’kmaw. As Link, running his fingers through his newly bleached hair, smiles and checks himself out in the dirty mirror, his hopefulness is unmistakable.
A moving coming-of-age story from a promising director.
In the next scene, one of a handful of abrupt transitions in Wildhood, Link and Travis are rummaging for scrap metal in an abandoned warehouse. As they’re leaving, the police pull up to the dilapidated structure and arrest Link and his brother and take them to the county jail. There, Link, who has been beaten unconscious by the cops, wakes to find an old woman (Becky Julian) patting his wounds with a warm towel and speaking to him in Mi’kmaq, the language of the Mi’kmaw. Her significance becomes clear later in the film, but for now she appears to be a nuisance to the jail attendants, who find her act of care irritating.
When Link and Travis’ father, Arvin (Joel Thomas Hynes), bails them out of jail, his visible anger warns of later violence. Sick of his father’s abuse, Link plans an escape that involves barging into Arvin’s room and stealing the keys to his car. What he finds during this haphazard search, though, is a recent birthday card from his mother, Sarah (Savonna Spracklin), who he had been led to believe was dead. Enraged, Link runs out of his father’s house with the addressed envelope, Travis in tow. Before setting off on the open road, they light Arvin’s truck on fire.
Another scene cut and we are in a convenience store, where Link spots Pasmay (Joshua Odjick), a Mi’kmaw teen, while browsing the magazine selection. Pasmay, who’s immediately attracted to Link, tries to start a conversation with the temperamental teen. Link isn’t having it, and it’s not until Pasmay buys Travis candy and offers to help Link find his mother (he has a car, after all) that their initial tension cools.
Wildhood starts off slowly and gives viewers a substantial, maybe even an overly detailed, understanding of Link and his relationship with his father before getting to the main action. On the road, Link, Pasmay and Travis get to know one another. Through secrets shared and harrowing moments escaped, they become a makeshift family.
The trio’s dynamic is entertaining, and they crack jokes with the same fierceness with which they argue. But it’s the evolving romance between Link and Pasmay that’s the most fun to witness. Maybe I’m a sucker for romance, but watching Link and Pasmay steal glances and exchange knowing smirks begins to feel more thrilling than the journey itself. Lewitski, who stars in Hulu’s Utopia Falls, and Odjick have a subtle and exciting chemistry that makes rooting for their budding love easy. The progress of that love is measured by the proximity of their bodies, which, as they get closer to finding Sarah, feel bound by an almost spiritual force.
The effect of such a stirring romance couldn’t be achieved without the dexterous work of cinematographer Guy Godfree, whose interest in capturing bodily details — a tense muscle during an argument, a surprised glance at a promise kept — is a treat. Lighting is a key part of the courtship. At all times of day, Godfree indulges in shots of the young characters cavorting in the fields of Eastern Canada, where Wildhood was shot. Whether it’s dawn or dusk, just before the rays of the sun disappear or when it’s at the highest point in the sky, light feels critical to this journey of self-discovery.
Wildhood is not without its weaknesses, though, and they become more apparent as the film, which runs almost two hours, progresses. Hannam’s screenplay could have benefited from a tighter focus, which might have reduced the director’s overreliance on music montages that, while charming, begin to feel like distractions. These may be a fixture of road trip movies, but there are only so many sequences of Travis, Link and Pasmay swimming or frolicking again through a field that one can take.
Despite its gradual pace, Wildhood satisfies the conventions of both genres it aspires to — coming-of-age and road trip — and ends on a poignant, if predictable, note. The journey to those final moments is only enhanced by the charming boys who undertake the trip.