How do you find yourself while running away from who you are? That’s the essential question at the heart of “Wildhood,” the impressive sophomore feature from Two Spirit L’nu filmmaker Bretten Hannam. Enlivened by elegant handheld cinematography and a galvanizing breakout performance from Phillip Lewitski, “Wildhood” is a beautiful testament to the power of authentic storytelling.
Filmed in English and Mi’kmaw, the film shares the Mi’kmaw culture with the greater world through the eyes of a wayward youth in search of his estranged mother. As he thrashes through the landscape with wild abandon, he slowly softens to the kind strangers he meets along the way, discovering himself with the gentle guidance of his people. It’s a vital coming-of-age road adventure with a healthy sprinkle of queer romance.
“Wildhood” opens with Lincoln, or Link (Lewitski), hunched over as his little brother Travis (Avery Winters-Anthony) scrubs bleach into his hair in their modest trailer home. Stretching lithely in the mirror, he allows a sly smile at his sweeping blonde locks, a rare moment of joy. After botching a petty theft and winding up in jail, he awakens to the healing touch of a Mi’kmaw woman speaking a language he doesn’t understand. When his gruff white father bails him out, he waits until they’re home to deliver Link’s hair-raising punishment. While rooting around his dad’s room for the key to his motorbike, he comes across a box of unopened cards from his mother, whom he thought was dead. Enraged by this deceit, he takes off with Travis in search of his mother, leaving his dad’s scorching pick-up truck ablaze.
Thus begins the first leg of their epic adventure, which begins on foot but soon leads to the generosity of Pasmay (Joshua Odjick), a gentle dancer who takes pity on the hapless duo. Drawn in by Link’s rough charms, Pasmay agrees to drive the brothers to the last address Link has for his mother. Though his ties with his own family are also fraught, Pasmay was raised with Mi’kmaw traditions and offers a connection to Link’s family culture. Though Link’s response is tepid at first, he eventually acquiesces to Pasmay’s lessons, slowly learning Mi’kmaw phrases and dances. “Float your arms like an eagle,” he directs, and his tightly wound protective layers unfurl for a brief moment.
Link’s aching need for belonging is explosively embodied in a daring performance by Lewitski, a live wire who vibrates with a kind of unbridled desire for something he cannot name. He rarely drops his tough exterior, but we know it’s there when he sends Travis to bed at a decent hour even though they’re sleeping outside with nowhere to be. Of course, Pasmay sees something softer behind his raging act, or is it just his sharp jawline? Their intimacy builds slowly but surely, eventually colliding under a raging waterfall, their glistening bodies pressed against wet stone.
The actors share an easy chemistry, with Lewitski and Odjick mirroring two sides of the pain of late adolescence; one hard, one soft. Hannam fills out the world of the film with an exciting cast of Indigenous performers; Michael Greyeyes (“True Detective”) picks the kids up along the road, enlisting them in a favor before driving them to a dance club where Link’s mother once worked. He brings a much-needed comedic warmth to the austere drama, especially with the way he proudly delivers the line: “I’m a pastry chef. French trained. Studied at Le Cordon Bleu.”
Though the romance is somewhat secondary to Link’s hero’s journey, there are overt markers of queerness throughout the film. When Link calls a sassy gas store worker “some dyke,” Greyeyes’ character sternly corrects him: “That’s my nephew.” The Tiger Lily club is run by an elegant Two-Spirit mother who makes Link blow on her fresh manicure before giving him the last piece of information he needs to find his mother.
The original music in the film feels both fresh and familiar, easily shifting from plaintive classical guitar to energizing hip-hop. Guy Godfree’s gentle handheld cinematography never feels overly present, but underscores each frame wth a subtle rhythm, cradling the characters in a graceful fluidity. Hannam was ambitious to write the script in English and Mi’kmaw, and though it’s unclear why certain lines remain untranslated, it casts a sacred sheen over Link’s connection with his culture, keeping some parts private. He eventually finds where he belongs, and outsiders can only travel so far with him on that journey.
“Wildhood” is now streaming on Hulu.