Moving and metaphorical in equal measure, Anishinaabe filmmaker Darlene Naponse’s latest feature, Stellar, is an experimental, ambitious work that balances pain and hope in equal measure. Subverting narratives surrounding topics such as indigenous folklore, environmental collapse, communication breakdowns, and generational trauma, Stellar is a film with a lot on its mind. While it might be a lot to take in given its stripped down setting and low budget trappings, its call for renewal and spiritual cleansing rings loud and true.
Stellar is a hard film to explain. On its surface, it’s both an allegory and an unlikely meet-cute romance. An unnamed woman (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) and an unnamed man (Braeden Clarke) – both from indigenous backgrounds – meet at a low key dive bar located in a big city. At first, they drink alone, but gradually He and She start gravitating towards each other. The closer they get to one another, the more it seems like the world outside the bar is falling apart in a sort of sped up, unknown apocalypse.
Naponse (Falls Around Her) sets a unique tone for Stellar that’s both warm and foreboding in equal measure, a delicate balance that’s hard to achieve. By crafting an allegorical, magical realist love story rooted firmly in indigenous perspectives and natural history that are hinted at in the opening moments, Naponse has created a cinematic language entirely her own; a storm of mythical strength and intensity raging via the microcosm of a dive bar seemingly located at the edge of the universe. The cosmos seems to be folding in on itself to bring these two wayward souls together at this fixed point in time, and although there’s a bartender (Rossif Sutherland) and a handful of frazzled, eccentric patrons that float in and out of the saloon, these two people start to feel like they exist only for each other. Whether their connection is bringing about a period of upheaval or renewal is immaterial. Inside their time together, all feels right with the world.
Stellar eases viewers into a larger examination of issues slowly, starting with a minimal amount of dialogue before launching into full on conversation. Small touches and brief flashes – like an irate, bigoted patron rushing in just to sound ignorant or a TV news report about indigenous protests subtly changing to a hockey game between shots – help to gradually set the stage for deeper parsings of indigenous issues. What emerges is sort of like theatre of the mind, with Stellar taking a disarmingly mindful approach to some issues that people could find triggering and depressing. Stellar is a work that gives names to traumas, then holds these figureheads in both rage and love to bring about a sense of catharsis, if only for the briefest of moments, and with hopes that change lies just around the corner.
Like I said, Stellar is a hard film to explain, and viewers must be willing to engage with Naponse’s vision fully, even if it raises a lot of questions that linger after the conclusion. Two people that perfectly understand the assignment, however, are Tailfeathers and Clarke. They’re willing to go along with Naponse fully and completely, but are also very convincing as two people far from home trying to tap into ancestral knowledge. Their performances are both charming and melancholic, with a wonderful chemistry between them. Since the bar they inhabit isn’t much to look at (by design), Tailfeathers and Clarke are tasked with keeping the viewer locked into the moment, and their work allows Naponse to platform the substance of the film with a great deal of gravity.
Sometimes Naponse’s sprawling vision for Stellar gets the better of the film, as does attempts to make something this heady a little more accessible. The amount of time given to certain topics over others doesn’t quite even out, and there’s a bit too much reliance on the film’s soundtrack to add some more emotional beats, but when everything else on display here is so unique and thoughtful, those points are easy to overlook. There’s nothing else out there quite like Stellar, and that’s the greatest compliment one can give to something this meaningful.
Stellar is now playing in select Canadian cinemas. It will be available nationwide on VOD starting October 10, 2023.
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