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Wild Indian – London Film Festival 2021

Wild Indian

Hinting at themes of displacement, assimilation and guilt, Wild Indian starts strongly but sadly falls short just at the final hurdle.

It’s not often that I find myself wishing a film was longer, but that is the case for Wild Indian, Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr’s first feature.

From its provocative title and historical prologue to its dramatic final scene, Wild Indian seems to be telling a story of displacement, assimilation, abuse, and guilt through the eyes of two childhood friends whose lives take very different paths following a crime in their youth.

A prologue tells of an old Ojibwe man who took himself away from his people because he had become ill, but who never returned home. The implication is, one presumes, that by remaining with family when sick, everyone around becomes infected too.

Following this prologue, the film moves to the 1980s where Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) and Teddo (Julian Gopal) are friends, boys of the Ojibwe people who attend the local catholic high school and who have difficult home lives involving alcohol and abusive parents. In extreme circumstances, the boys cover up the killing of a classmate, an act which creates a lifetime bond of guilt between them.

Jumping to 2019, the men (now played by Michael Greyeyes and Chaske Spencer) are living very different lives. Makwa now goes by the name Michael, plays golf as a hobby, has a job in a swanky office, and a blonde wife and little baby at home, whereas Teddo is being released from another stint in jail. One appears to have escaped the limitations that his childhood imposed, the other seems to have has been consumed by them. We see how the façade of good living hides some murky thoughts and deeds, and also how an outer shell covered in tattoos – too troubling for the public to see – contains a warm and patient uncle. The contrast between outward and inward could not be more striking.

The two men’s paths cross one more time and result in a shocking outcome – but once that point is reached, the film feels like it loses its focus and hurtles to a swift conclusion like the waves crashing on to a California beach.

It’s difficult to know exactly what director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr was trying to say with his film – or perhaps he was not intending to say anything other than ask the audience to take in what they see and make their own assumptions. Either way, it really felt as though we needed to spend more time with the two protagonists to do so. Their bond, for better or worse, is one of Makwa’s few remaining links to his indigenous roots and would appear to underpin the essence of his adult life. Without more depth to either of them, it’s difficult to make a judgment (however subjective) on how much of what happened was nature or nurture, and by extension dampens the exploration of indigenous displacement and oppression hinted at from the start.

Wild Indian has a very strong first 70 minutes in which I was totally invested, but which a mere twenty minutes later left nothing more than a feeling of dissatisfaction.

Wild Indian plays at the London Film Festival 2021.

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