Starring Stephen Bogaert. Rated 14A.
Unlike Argentina’s Wild Tales, the occasionally intersecting stories of The Valley Below strive for hyper-realism and don’t attempt larger statements about human nature—aside from the recurrent image of toy trains chugging inconsequentially through the timeless sandstone terrain of Alberta’s thinly coloured badlands.
A first feature for Calgary-based writer-director Kyle Thomas, the beautifully shot film (which he also edited) weaves together strands devoted to characters populating a lightly fictionalized version of Drumheller. I say lightly, because only someone who really knows the people and places depicted here could capture them with such unsentimental verisimilitude.
Even if familiar from other projects, these actors disappear completely into their roles. Kris Demeanor excels as a puffy-faced ice rink maintenance man and part-time musician who’s already lost a family to his incessant drinking. TV veteran Stephen Bogaert is likewise strong as a taxidermist who fails to see the stuffing escaping from his own life. In the most ordinary segment, the latter’s daughter (Mikaela Cochrane) finds her college plans disrupted by an unwanted pregnancy. These Raymond Carver–esque characters, often seemingly as stuck in time as the dinosaur statues that dot the landscape, are connected by a stocky police constable (Madrid-born Alejandro Rae) who moonlights as a radio DJ and doesn’t let his deep concern for the community dampen the kinky adventures he enjoys with his statuesque wife (Alana Hawley).
The movie holds your attention even when its situations veer towards the pedestrian, although the otherwise imaginative filmmaker’s Achilles’ heel is his mundane dialogue, often flat to the point of disappearing into the prairie wind. Thomas can certainly argue that none of his characters were born with the gift of gab, but that’s not enough reason for a new screenwriter to avoid digging deeper into the poetry of people he obviously cares about. Instead, that burden is given to the alternative-music score supplied by the likes of Rae Spoon, Dan Mangan, and Demeanor, who delivers one of his potent tunes on-screen. This is a gamble, but it works.