TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2022 REVIEW! The cycles of existence pop wheelies in Ashininaabe auteur Darlene Naponse’s astounding experimental feature, Stellar. Filmed on location in the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation in Northern Ontario, it opens with wilderness images with onscreen text referencing a gigantic meteor strike that shook the planet over a billion years ago. This is followed by the text of the sacred lore surrounding the event, mentioning that when the land beneath oceans opened to release the snakes, She and He braided with each other in the rift. We see deer-like grazers gazing at swirling lights coming down from the sky.
The main story of Stellar begins with She (Elle-Maija Tailfeathers) walking through a city and talking to cats in shop windows. Then, She walks into a dive bar where He (Braeden Clarke) is having a drink. The bartender (Rossif Sutherland) serves She while He plays a song on the jukebox. Intercut are stunning nature images with rain starting to fall and waters rising.
Outside the bar, the wind picks up, and Dance (K.C. Collins) slides in for a quick one before braving the elements some more. She and He talk about always talking about going back to the Rez they left a while ago. She summons up a vision of the stars on the wall, with each spot she touches corresponding with a different natural disaster currently occurring. As the cataclysm builds up outside, various people burst through the door, like the well-meaning white women (Heli Kijanen, Megan Dawson) offering food and shelter. She and He decline as they get to know each other. They are visited by a pair of Aunties (Billy Merasty and Tina Keeper), who see the connection developing between them. As the world ends just like it always has and always will, She and He put another coin in the jukebox and dance.
“As the world ends just like it always has and always will, She and He put another coin in the jukebox and dance.”
Experimental projects are inherently risky by design. When you start to explore the endless possibilities of rebel cinema, you risk getting lost in the outer gulfs beyond reason and comprehension. Audiences risk sinking into confusion or boredom. Rare is the experimental film that breaks cinematic rules while remaining engaging and provocative. Stellar is one of the rare ones. Writer-director Naponse hits each note perfectly on her way to a truly cosmic jam.
The mise en scene hits your system like hot buttered morphine. The lighting is vibrant and stylized to the point that it flirts with the surreal. The sound design washes your nerves with ambient noises mixed with gorgeous tones. It is the most mellow apocalypse one could hope for. There is an intentional artificiality with the green screen effects that works wondrously both aesthetically and thematically. The world ending parallels the ripping away of the assumed reality in the cinematic universe. The juxtaposition of the breathtaking nature images with the old cigarette vending machine ambiance of the dive bar generates emotional friction that keeps delighting.
To help navigate the viewer through this strange realm, the filmmaker keeps a logical thread to grasp onto with a simple naturalism. She punctuates the wild poetry with simple barroom chatter and easy-to-follow interactions, similar to the approach Lynch and Shepherd take in their weirder works. Tailfeathers and Clarke maintain a believable naturalism in their performances that anchors the narrative drive. Even when breaking into a line of pure throbbing poetic dialogue, Tailfeathers finds a normal-sounding delivery. This pulling spinning, lofty phrases down from the sky is frontier Shakespearian at its finest.
The concept of Stellar plays like Altered States meets Last Night at the Alamo. What’s being reached for is something much heavier than simple allegory or commentary. Naponse conjures up some hard magic hidden deep in the experimental form. This is not just a high point in Indigenous cinema. It is a clear signal of the heights cinematic art can reach. At the end of the world, I plan to go to sleep watching this movie every night.
Stellar screened at the 2022 Toronto Film Festival.
"…hits your system like hot buttered morphine."