Sean Randall, the sullen protagonist from Jason Buxton’s infuriating “Blackbird,” has committed no crime. But because of a misinterpreted threat he’s posted online, this quiet, fringe-dwelling teenager is unjustly charged with planning a Columbine-style high school massacre. Despite his innocence, Sean’s life is forever soiled. He’s cuffed, strip-searched, and discarded, like garbage, into a brutal juvenile detention center. Welcome to our punitive, paranoid times, where venting adolescent frustration online might just cost you your future.
Rage is seldom perceived as a positive emotion, even as it remains an inevitable part of the human condition. Anger is also the catalyst for some of our greatest art, inspiring both the wounded words of poetry and the roar of heavy metal riffs. However, in a world fraught with tragedies like the Sandy Hook shootings and Boston bombings, we’re reminded that contemporary evil is sometimes dealt out insidiously, by unstable outcasts. And often, such violence is mapped out in tell-tale tomes found after the damage is done.
Even so, “Blackbird” reminds us that angry kids (meaning, just about every kid between 12 and 18) are seldom latent shooters, and most bitter teenage diaries will never become Unabomber Manifestos. Now is a particularly shitty time to be a pissed-off adolescent, and “Blackbird” confirms that the public expression of fury is an extremely risky business.
As “Blackbird” initially takes flight, we squint at the flashing red and blue lights of a police cruiser. Authorities have descended upon the humble, Nova Scotia home that Sean (Connor Jessup) shares with his blue-collar, sports-fan father (Michael Buie). He’s whisked away in handcuffs, accused of planning a violent attack on students and teachers.
But as “Blackbird” flashes back in time to the events precipitating his arrest, we learn that Sean is no killer. In fact, he’s a sensitive, silent Goth incapable of relating to the swaggering jocks populating his high school. Sean’s blatant nonconformity, declared by his black nail polish and studded leather jacket, makes him the target for a pack of hockey-team bullies who pelt him with daily threats. Even as Sean finds himself unable to relate in this insular, cliquish high school, he’s smitten with Deanna (Alexia Fast), a girl from the “popular” crowd. Deanna, who won’t be caught fraternizing with Sean in the presence of her status-conscious peers, secretly returns his affection after class.
Complicating things is the fact that Deanna’s long-time boyfriend is the hockey team’s captain. Growing wise to the blossoming affection between Deanna and Sean, he prompts a violent confrontation with the new suitor. During a foolish lapse of reason, Sean retaliates with an online death threat against this seething Alpha Male. It’s at this point that the story revisits Sean’s arrest. Raiding his house, the police unveil a particularly damning piece of “evidence.” At the suggestion of his school counselor, Sean has scribed a vivid revenge journal which includes the vicarious gunning down of a hockey team. The fact that Sean’s dad, an avid hunter, has stored a sizable collection of rifles within their home doesn’t help the situation.
Following the discovery of his provocative story, Sean awaits trial. He’s tossed between courtrooms, then committed to Waterville Detention Center, a human kennel of antisocial dogs that makes Shawshank Prison look like Disneyland. We behold Sean’s constant, desperate efforts to avoid assault. Later, we grimace as he’s encouraged to enter a plea bargain, trading truth for an opportunity to escape incarceration. Will Sean compromise his innocence? Is his romance with Deanna still an option? Will justice be served?
“Blackbird” asks the question: Has our hyper-vigilant response to potential misdeeds by troubled minds gone too far? Do all online expressions of defiance, however misguidedly posted, now qualify as “thought crimes?” Wisely, Buxton doesn’t scream his point from the rooftop, preferring to show and not tell. Jessup refuses to play Sean as a flamboyantly extroverted rebel, and it’s a wise choice. The young actor’s understated approach allows us to share his worsening nightmare without amped-up hysteria or unnecessary exposition. His silence is also true to character. Even after surrendering the leather and spikes that once served as his armor, Sean maintains a cerebral, guarded stoicism. Stripped of his safety and freedom, he still won’t let you in.
Buxton also shows commendable empathy towards characters that might, in a more conventional movie, be painted as villains. Sean’s father, initially presented as a camo-garbed redneck, emerges as one of Sean’s staunchest supporters. Even Trevor (Alex Ozerov), a detention center sociopath hell-bent on killing Sean, has a particularly harrowing reason to hate the world.
“Blackbird” forces us into the shoes of a relentlessly bullied protagonist who vents his pain not with physical retaliation, but through cathartic words – only to be unjustly dehumanized and made a pariah. It really pissed me off, and I mean that as the highest compliment. Unstable, misguided shooters are a terrifying reality, and the tragedies they instigate are incomprehensibly cruel. But creative expressions of human pain and frustration, especially those aimed at predatory tormentors, can be among the most unifying, healing forces on earth. Playwrights should not be punished over the awful acts of a select few.