Empire of Dirt has a poverty of ideas


Starring Cara Gee. Unrated

Although the offbeat setup of this Ontario-based story initially draws you into director Peter Stebbings’s sophomore answer to his quirky Defendor, novice screenwriter Shannon Masters makes too many rookie mistakes for the tale to fully pay off.

We’re told that the central character, Lina (Cara Gee), is a successful volunteer counsellor at an urban First Nations youth centre. But the 30-year-old former model flies off the handle at any perceived transgression, constantly barks at 13-year-old daughter Peeka (nasal-voiced Shaye Eyre), and spends all her spare change on cigarettes and booze—while bragging about how “clean” she is. Lina demonstrates no personal interests or ambitions beyond settling old scores, and she has plenty with her own mother (Dance Me Outside’s Jennifer Podemski, who also produced this), still miffed that Lina ran off when she became pregnant at 16 and only came back to her rural, lakeside village—soon after Empire of Dirt begins—after Peeka gets in trouble on the street.

So far, that sounds like a low-rent version of Gilmore Girls, with swearing and paint-fume huffing in place of pop-culture references and dreams of Harvard. But the women here only bond over shared bitterness, and Masters doesn’t give them much to say that carves out unique territory for these angry, disappointed characters. Other people—presumably relatives and old friends—drift in and out without enough explanation, except when delivering blunt, conflict-focused plot exposition.

Despite the ragged edges, this Empire is worth visiting for its rarely depicted settings. And the cast is generally appealing, with Jordan Prentice making a strong impression as a little-person pal who has remained true to Lina in this Native-skewed version of Stars Hollow. Take This Waltz’s Luke Kirby, however, as a pot-smoking cop and possible baby daddy, remains unconvincing on several levels. And the movie closes with an entirely arbitrary and badly staged accident that’s intended to draw all the plot threads together but simply shows the poverty of ideas on display here.

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