Dec 28, 2011

Down The Road Again (2011)

Director / Writer: Donald Shebib
Producer: Robin Cass
Cinematographer: Francois Dagenais
Union Pictures; 85 min; color

Doug McGrath (Pete), Kathleen Robertson (Betty-Jo), Anthony Lemke (Matt), Jayne Eastwood (Betty), Cayle Chernin (Selina), Tedde Moore (Annie)

Like many viewers enamoured with the 1970 film Goin Down The Road, I had always hoped that director Don Shebib would create a sequel to his Canadian classic. What had happened to Pete and Joey after the film fades out? After having experienced their hopeful emigration to greener pastures from the Maritimes to Toronto, our heroes find despair and economic hardship, and then after a poorly planned plot to steal some groceries which ends in violence, flee to an uncertain future in the west coast (Joey leaving behind a pregnant newlywed wife). For years, Shebib had resisted requests to do a followup film, until finally Cayle Chernin (who played Pete's unrequited love interest in the original) persuaded him to revisit the path charted by this groundbreaking film.

Oddly enough, it is rather fitting that Shebib waited until 2010 to begin this project: in 1970, we saw our ensemble of characters in the beginning of adulthood, and then forty years ago, we see them in the twilight of their lives, which have however been changed by the men's sudden departure to the west. Actor Paul Bradley, who played Joey, passed away in 2003, thus inspiring the story for the sequel. Pete, having recently retired as a postman, receives posthumous instructions from his friend Joey, who just died of lung cancer, to revisit Joey's wife Betty and daughter in Toronto, and then journey back to Nova Scotia to scatter his ashes. After Pete breaks the news of Joey's passing to Betty in Toronto, her estranged daughter Betty-Jo talks her way into joining Pete on the road out east, in an effort to learn more about the father she never knew. As the film unfolds, we see that Joey has concocted a very intricate plot within this journey: to heal old wounds, and indirectly, to reveal some secrets of Pete's own past.

If Goin' Down the Road was a progression to the west which opened many wounds, Down The Road Again is journey back east, and to salvation. Perhaps Betty's line "What's done can't be undone" captures the film's overlying theme of atonement. Fittingly, we revisit these characters when they are post-senior age: a time in life when many are ready to accept and forgive life's hard turns.

Although despite that some key scenes are perhaps too rushed, I however was enthralled by this revisit to some iconic Canadian characters. As far as sequels to our Canadian classics go, this is far more honourable than Unfinished Business, American Cousins, or Scanners III: The Takeover. This drama admittedly relies too much on flashback footage from the 1970 classic, although its usage isn't necessarily wrong (the grainy 16mm film of Joey makes him an omnipresent figure, even in death). As the journey down the road unfolds, we see our characters change, yet still writer-director Shebib thankfully avoids contrivances in doing so. The key figure in the film is Betty-Jo, a thirty-something screwup, who is understandably hostile and bitter at first (and also has a bit of her father's devil-may-care spirit), but ironically begins to learn about discipline and respect from her ne'er-do-well dad. Kathleen Robertson's performance is bristling, never overwrought.

It's great to see the three surviving key characters back on the big screen. Although admittedly Cayle Chernin has less to do as Selina (who after forty years is still best friends with Betty), she is a delight: it's immediately apparent in Pete and her's awkward reunion that she still has a thing for her ex-old flame. (Sadly, Ms. Chernin did not live to see this film released. Unbeknownst to her co-workers, she was dying of cancer while filming. The film is dedicated to her, Paul Bradley and the late cinematographer Richard Leiterman, who lensed Goin' Down the Road, and several other Shebib projects.) Jayne Eastwood too, in her usual world-wise yet "what the hell" demeanour finds the soul of Betty: deep down she too still has some love for the man who abandoned her. Doug McGrath is quietly affecting as Pete: his slouched body symbolically carrying the burden of a fateful mistake made four decades earlier. This film has another reunion of sorts: Tedde Moore is also re-united with director Shebib (having co-starred in the director's Rip-Off and Second Wind), giving a touching performance as a woman with Alzheimer's that Pete encounters back in Nova Scotia.

Down The Road Again is a minor revelation alone for the simple fact that we are finally seeing a Donald Shebib picture on the big screen after a long absence. This movie reveals the same subtle touches, low-key approach and storytelling economy that graces his best film work. It is equally refreshing also, to see such an old-fashioned approach to moviemaking, when the multiplexes are usually full of bombast and style-over-substance. Despite one scene with a cell phone, this movie otherwise feels timeless: these characters still exist in a world from before our present-day landscape where technology and gadgets enroach upon our lives.

When the lights went up, I was tremendously moved- not just by the hard-won road to the characters' salvation, but that we are (however briefly) allowed to see work by one of our country's masters once again. Donald Shebib is one of the key figures of the era in our country's cinema which I refer to as The Great Promise, circa 1968 to 1973, when new young Canadian filmmakers imbued the spirit of the British Kitchen Sink and the French New Wave into our own stories. Many of these key works by Shebib, Paul Almond, Claude Jutra and others remain fresh and exciting. And like many of our country's finest directors, Shebib paid the bills while working in television as the feature film projects became fewer and further between. This is the cinema that we need- Down The Road Again (as symbolized by its title) is a return not only to some iconic Canadian characters, but a revisit to the kind of honest storytelling that we had forgotten we missed. It is time once again for us to see our own stories on the screen.

ABOVE (left to right): Doug McGrath, Kathleen Robertson, Jayne Eastwood, Cayle Chernin


Barry Smight said...

I agree with your points regarding Goin' Down the Road, and Don Shebib.

The superior director admitted in an interview I read years ago that, looking back in hindsight, the biggest mistake he made was not taking up one of the many offers to move to L.A. and direct down there. He thought that he could stay here and help form a real Canadian film industry. Not so much naive, perhaps, as an afterglow.

Also: A friend told me years ago that Shebib had a hard time controlling star Margot Kidder on Heartaches (1981).

Greg Woods said...

Yes, their grievances were well-publicized, I believe. I'll have to revisit that one in the near future!