Finally. Finally someone has made a really good hockey movie. Sure, I love “Slapshot” as much as the next girl, but let’s be honest: it just seems unfair that Canada’s national pastime should be reduced on celluloid to a man in a jockstrap holding a trophy aloft. Compared with the wealth of dramatically complex films about baseball (“Eight Men Out,” “Pride of the Yankees,” “Bull Durham”…) produced by our brothers south of the border, you’d think that someone in the Great White North would have produced a film that honestly and powerfully portrays the sport our country loves so much. Well, newcomer Dwayne Beaver has made that film.
“The Rhino Brothers” begins with the return home of youngest son Stefan Kanachowski (Curtis Bechdholt) from a stint in the minor leagues with his new girlfriend Alison (Deanna Milligan). No one comments on his arrival initially, but everyone fears he has met the same fate as his older brother Sasha (William MacDonald), who also made it as far as the minors only to be cut before ever tasting “the show.” Sasha now spends his days drinking too much and sleeping on mom’s couch, dreaming of how talented he is and how close he came. To bide the time between Molson Canadians he plays on his other brother Victor’s (Alistair Abell) “senior men’s league” (which is a polite way to say “beer league”) hockey team, the Rhinos. Victor wasn’t talented enough to warrant a shot at a hockey career, so he got married and had some kids and now owns a hockey shop and dreams the Rhinos can win a district cup.
The dramatic focus of the film comes in the form of Kanachowski matriarch and hockey mom to end all hockey moms Ellen (Gabrielle Ross). Ellen is a focused and determined woman, determined that at least one of her boys will realize his hockey dreams and get the hell out of their tiny industry town. She blames Alison for not supporting Stefan enough and Sasha for setting a bad example, never suspecting that Stefan may have quit, not been cut, in the pursuit of “a normal life.”
What struck me most about this film was the underlying honesty, even if most of the characters are lying, either to each other, or to themselves. The sensitive script by Rudy Thauberger manages to avoid sports cliches and instead focuses on the complicated family drama. Stefan’s love of hockey is tied inextricably to his love for his mother, so his choice between chasing a dream that has probably already passed him by and settling down with his long suffering girlfriend is particularly loaded, making the ending all the more tragic. The other dramatic driving force is the tension and petty jealousies between the brothers, a situation so ultimately volatile it reduces the “big game” (yes, there is a “big game” but you almost wish they don’t get there) to a pissing contest.
Left to less talented actors, all of this risked devolving into a melodramatic soap opera on ice, but surprisingly everyone manages to keep up with each other. The obvious standout, of course, is Gabrielle Ross as Ellen, a character so unlikeable that it would have been easy to turn her into a caricature. Luckily Ross is able to portray both Ellen’s strength and her vulnerability in the pursuit of “what’s best” for her boy.
“The Rhino Brothers” also betrays the fact that it is a first feature by looking and sounding absolutely gorgeous. The crisp HD cinematography is a jewel among the usual shoddy shot on DV look of a lot of Canadian independent film, and the soundtrack by Shane Harvey gives a nice homey feel to the proceedings. The DVD is fairly sparse on special features, it does include brief cast and crew bios and trailers for the film (and for a documentary on the 1972 Canada-Russia series). But, I would highly recommend the commentary track by Beaver and some of the cast to aspiring film makers. Beaver goes into a quite a bit of technical detail and it should come as a surprise to no one that he teaches filmmaking in Vancouver.
However, probably the best surprise of the movie was that not only could all of the lead actors skate, they could actually play hockey.