Hey, Viktor! Review | Fame vs. Infamy vs. Yourself

by Andrew Parker

Director, writer, star, and “documentary subject” Cody Lightning takes a simple storytelling premise viewers already know and turns it into something hilariously personal with his behind the scenes mockumentary Hey, Viktor! The film’s title refers to a particular moment in Lightning’s life that has followed him everywhere, for better and for worse, spinning off a heightened version of the actor’s easygoing persona into an egotistical, glory chasing tailspin. Hey, Viktor! is equal parts hilarious and uncomfortable, as all great black comedies need to succeed, but there’s also a healthy amount of contemplation and societal weight, pondering what it means to be a hairy, portly, indigenous actor in a world where parts for such performers are exceedingly slim. Hey, Viktor! is the rare example of a film that’s both lowbrow in spirit and execution and unquestionably pure of heart.

Albertan Lightning (who was most recently seen playing a character not too far removed from what he’s doing here in Marvel’s Echo series) got a huge boost in his young acting career when he appeared in the seminal 1998 indigenous drama Smoke Signals, as the younger version of Adam Beach’s primary character. While almost everyone involved with Smoke Signals has gone on to bigger and better things, Lightning’s career has stalled and sputtered. Here, he has been reduced to starring in adult films and dubious commercials, and teaching acting to children dumb enough to pay him for tips. Lightning has been chasing the high of his young adult years for decades, and with the help of his best friend/manager/writing partner (Hannah Cheeseman), he’s determined to make an unauthorized sequel to Smoke Signals. With medium talent in front of the camera, even less behind it, absolutely no money at his disposal, and no commitments from any of the original film’s stars to return, Lightning’s efforts are foolhardy at best and embarrassing and damaging at worst.

Watching a washed-up professional with an ego the size of the prairies trying and failing to make a self-starting comeback is a familiar comedic chestnut, but the cultural specificity of Hey, Viktor! helps to set it apart from similar efforts. The concept of an actor who merely played the backstory of a more well known character in a film that has more niche appeal than widespread pop culture adulation trying to make everything about themself is funny in and of itself, and Lightning’s full throttle and full throated approach to cringe comedy is uncompromising and boundary pushing. Unafraid of coming across as naive or deeply unlikeable, Lightning balances potty humour with genuine insight about the fickle, fleeting nature of moderate fame.

As a performer, Lightning is brave in ways that his on screen counterpoint is not. Throwing himself into one uncomfortable, confrontational, and ill advised situation after another with the energy of a young John Belushi, Lightning paints a commanding picture of an energetic boor/boar. Armed with the conviction that misplaced, delusional, and sometimes even deeply wounded entitlement can bring, Lightning’s high wire act comes with a major point. It’s hard to say just how much of Hey, Viktor! can parallel with Lightning’s own experiences, but it’s not impossible to believe that such a character could exist, even outside of this highly fictionalized, cartoonish world. Lightning – the character – won’t come out and say it explicitly, but he definitely believes the world owes him something.

And, yeah, the world kinda does, because this character wouldn’t have such a chip on their shoulder if certain things didn’t go horribly awry. Hey, Viktor! is a film from an indigenous point of view told by someone who is equally the best and worst person to tell such a story. Lightning (again, the character, but probably also the filmmaker) believes deeply in rooting his film in a sense of community, even if he has done everything possible to alienate himself from the people he’s trying to reconnect with (including a lot of returning familiar faces playing themselves). Despite all of this being a shameless, self-serving stab at success, the overarching journey in Hey, Viktor! is a bleakly comedic cry for help from an unaware clown.

Part fictional intervention, part confrontation, and part self-parody, Hey, Viktor! sometimes gets bogged down under the weight of ambition. There are a couple of subplots too many that don’t have much payoff beyond the obvious (a hot young star has started dating his ex, the obviously white manager trying to prove their indigenous heritage), and it can be sometimes exhausting to watch a perma-drunk prima donna make the same mistakes over and over again, but Lightning manages to strike an consistent tone amid all the chaos, building to a climax that’s both crowd pleasing and not a betrayal of all the darkness that came before it. It’s also more visually striking than mockumentaries tend to get, with Lightning and his team making the most of the rural, small town vibes that arise naturally from such lived in, experiential material. But perhaps most important of all, Hey, Viktor! hits the comedic mark more than it misses, and it’s eminently quotable, which, come to think of it, is perfect for a film based around a cinematic line of dialogue that has taken on a life of its own.

Hey, Viktor! opens in theatres across Canada, including TIFF Lightbox in Toronto, on Friday, March 15, 2024.

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