Review: Kayak to Klemtu

by Andrew Parker

The environmentally conscious Canadian family drama Kayak to Klemtu is a genial, respectful, low key affair, and that should be taken as compliment in the kindest way possible. Director and co-writer Zoe Leigh Hopkins’ first feature follows not only the grieving process faced by a First Nations family that has suffered a tragic loss, but also their advocacy and individual strengths. While the family dynamics are pretty standard family movie fodder, it accomplishes its goals with love and purpose, two traits that movies aimed at the most general of audiences hardly ever do anymore in favour of pandering and grandstanding. The fact that Hopkins accomplishes her goals without feeling needlessly preachy, overbearing, or hokey is a testament to the strength of her vision.

Fourteen year old Ella (Ta’Kaiya Blaney) has been given an enormous responsibility by her late, beloved uncle, Dave (Evan Adams). Wanting to feel some connection to her ancestral homeland of Klemtu, Ella has agreed to travel hundreds of miles by kayak from her new home in the city to the titular community to protest a proposed pipeline and diesel shipping route that could potentially ruin the area’s ecosystem. Ella’s mother (Sarah Kelley) refuses to let the teen take the trip alone, insisting that she bring along her aunt, Cory (Sonja Bennet), and Dave’s resentful, cantankerous, and unwilling brother, Don (Lorne Cardinal). Aided along the way by Dave’s equally grieving stepson, Alex (Jared Ager-Foster), the family members have 25 days to complete 500 mile journey through the Great Bear Rainforest in time for the public hearing on the proposed pipeline, where Ella will deliver the speech that Dave wanted to give had he survived.

Hopkins, a filmmaker with Heiltsuk ancestry that’s tied closely to the land depicted in her film, focuses on making the familial interactions feel as authentic as possible and visually explaining why the land matters so much without resorting to speechifying and shorthand. Hopkins (who got some help on the screenplay from fellow Canadian filmmakers Michael Sparaga and Scooter Corkle) showcases a few first-feature jitters, but most of them are the result of thinking things through too strenuously rather than the worse option of not thinking them through at all.

Ella’s family refreshingly work their way through problems and disagreements via often lengthy, in-depth arguments or conversations. That’s a realistic approach, but not all of these scenes need to be turned into elaborate walk and talks to keep things snappy, and they don’t need to be shot in locations where it feels like the conversations are out of place. This doesn’t apply to the entire film, but every now and then there will be disconnect between the dialogue at hand and the specific decision by Hopkins to make the scene take place in an inorganic location. It’s an odd, distracting problem for a film to have, but not one that damages the material’s charm or potency in any way, and outside of a well-intentioned scene involving a dead bear that misfires completely, it’s the only aspect of Kayak to Klemtu that feels awkward.

The cast has plenty of material to work with, and Hopkins allows the principal family members on the trip plenty of room to explore and grow. Each of them has a different method of coping, and their fracturing s equally understandable and empathetic. Blaney, who in addition to being an actress is quite the First Nations activist in her own right, balances Ella’s impulsive teenage nature with a clear sense of responsibility and morality. Bennet nicely plays her character as a wounded person repressing their true feelings by putting on a brave face at all times, and she ends up with the most fascinating and subtle arc of all the characters. Cardinal might be on hand for a certain amount of comedic relief, but he also does a fine job of showing why Don’s conflicted feelings towards his now deified late brother are justified. Foster stumbles a bit whenever his character has to show a large outpouring of catharsis, but whenever he’s called upon to be either petulant or comforting, he’s quite good. And although his character is only glimpsed in flashbacks and visions, Adams serves as the film’s biggest source of heart and warmth. It’s hard for a film to showcase how – even in death – a single family member can inspire the rest of his kin to do extraordinary things, but Adams and Hopkins handle this potentially cheesy aspect of Kayak to Klemtu with delicacy and grace.

It goes without saying that the film’s natural locations are spectacularly captured. Once the film gets out on the water, cinematographer Vince Arvidson could basically point the camera wherever he wants and end up with visual gold. Hopkins and her team make sure the gorgeous land is covered from as many angles as possible, always making the case on a visual level that Ella’s journey is right and just. By the time Kayak to Klemtu reaches a point where grand speeches are going to be made about why the land needs protecting, such moments feel earned because Arvidson and Hopkins have effectively captured the beauty and splendour of the B.C. islands. It’s probably even more awe inspiring in person, but Kayak to Klemtu is the next best thing to being there.

An ecologically minded, rural set teen movie sounds like a bit of a tough sell these days, but the conviction of Hopkins and her collaborators pull off Kayak to Klemtu with sweetness, gentility, and a fully realized sense of purpose. Everything the film says about the dangers to the B.C. waterways depicted in the film are absolutely true. Mere days after filming ended, a diesel tanker travelling the same waterways spilled hundreds of thousands of litres of fuel right near Hopkins’ hometown, virtually destroying what was left of the local fishing industry.

I’m sure if Kayak to Klemtu had been produced in the wake of such an incident instead of before it (not that there weren’t incidents prior), the results might have been an angrier film. But even in the wake of such ecological horror and setback, Hopkins has made both a nuanced drama that families can enjoy together, and a hopeful film about how the next generation of stewards can make their world a better place one journey at a time. Considering how depressing and trying our world can be, it’s nice to be reminded that films like Kayak to Klemtu still exist.

Kayak to Klemtu opens at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, May 25, 2018. It expands to additional Canadian cities throughout the spring and summer.

Check out the trailer for Kayak to Klemtu:

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