Starring Cara Gee, Shay Eyre and Jennifer Podemski
EMPIRE OF DIRT is the story of a young single mother of aboriginal roots named Lena (Cara Gee), who is struggling to raise her troubled daughter, Peeka (Shay Eyre). Lena is barely getting by, making little money by cleaning houses, but after she loses her job and sees Peeka end up in a hospital for overdosing on inhalants, Lena realizes she must make a change. The two girls leave Toronto to go back to Lena’s hometown in northern Ontario to stay with her mother.
Gee, a rising star at this year’s TIFF, is disappointing as Lena, which affects the film as a whole. Scenes near the beginning of the film where she argues with her daughter feel very wooden, on both of their parts. Either I got used to it, or they filmed those scenes beforehand, because I found that the acting got better as the film progressed. Jennifer Podemski gives a solid performance as Lena’s mother Minerva, a strong woman who bounced back from her gambling addiction. The film also features a supporting performance from Luke Kirby (previously seen in Sarah Polley’s TAKE THIS WALTZ) playing Peeka’s estranged father.
Director, Peter Stebbings uses this film to show us that the mistreatment of aboriginal men and women years ago, including the residential school system, still impacts aboriginals today. This is an important film because it gives a voice to the aboriginal people, who are often unmentioned in the film industry. Unfortunately, the film feels a little forced at times, as if Stebbings is trying to fit way too many issues and addictions into a film that is only 90 minutes long. Stebbings’ screenplay, which is riddled with mediocre dialogue that borders on cliché, doesn’t help matters either. The film is well intentioned and tries to do right by the aboriginal people, but good intentions cannot save the film from its faults.