Director: Jason Buxton
Starring: Connor Jessup, Alexia Fast, Michael Buie
The debut feature film from Jason Buxton, ‘Blackbird’ (not to be confused with the film of the same name released earlier in 2015), is a real indie treat. Understated, packed with raw and unfamiliar talent, and a relatable storyline, it’s a film that really deserves your attention.
That relatable storyline follows reclusive goth teenager, Sean Randall (played by the excellent Connor Jessup), as he struggles to deal with the usual conflicts of being a teenager, whilst managing the disappointment of no longer seeing half of his family. Living solely with his Dad (Michael Buie), the family environment is as cold as the weather around them, and their family dynamic as desolate as the surrounding countryside. Goth-styled music drones on in the background, as Sean strops about in his leather jacket, complete with black eye-liner and piercings. The look, although bordering on parody, is effective, as his dark presence is felt in otherwise brightly lit scenes.
The typical high-school affair is presented to us, with the rival social groups and the hierarchy that seemingly exists with the primary intention to ruin the lives of those below them. Sean doesn’t seem to fit into any group except for his own, but as is often the case, his crush is none other than the best looking girl in school and the girlfriend of a moron jock. Assuming their relationship is nothing more than a societal statement designed to heighten popularity to an unattainable level, he pursues this girl in a bid to win her away from his high school enemies.
The scene is set, and you could argue it is a relatively normal and low-key affair so far, that is until the police storm Sean’s house and arrest him for conspiracy to commit a Columbine-inspired high school massacre. For all the while he had been feeling rejected, outcast, annoyed and confused, he had been channelling his feelings of teenage angst into a journal and blog, in which he went into grim detail as to what he would do and to whom. Off to the detention centre he goes until his long-term fate is decided.
Documentaries such as ‘The House I Live In’, ‘Central Park Five’ and ‘West Of Memphis’, to name a few, all show how convoluted, complicated and unfair the US judicial system is, even without a guilty verdict or evidence. Imprisoned for conspiracies, pleading guilty for an idea, and sentences that do not reflect the crime; ‘Blackbird’ dramatises these realities, but centres on the notion of social profiling. However, these factors are presented as secondary in importance when ranked alongside Sean’s other experiences and priorities as a teenager.
Misunderstood by those on the outside, hated by those on the inside, through a combination of personal issues and the inclusion of online activity, Sean has cultivated an isolated life on both sides of the wall. It raises serious questions as to the effects of bullying, and the high school social hierarchy, and emphasises how after all these years you can still be picked on simply for being different. How much of it is just “kids being kids”, and how many of these scenarios will it take before this issue is taken more seriously? While the links between bullying and shootings are largely debated, you can’t deny that the relationship is highly plausible.
The subject matter is an interesting one, but that alone cannot make a good film. Jason Buxton has done a fantastic job in getting the best out of the young cast. With a limited script, the cinematography contributes a great deal in conveying the lonely atmosphere, and a significant amount of time is assigned for the characters to develop. However, the key strength beneath all this is its plausibility, and subtlety when executed.
‘Blackbird’ takes the social interactions of a troubled youth and demonstrates the harsh reality of choosing to vent in a way deemed threatening by the law. These troubles follow him at home, at school, around town and in jail, ultimately leading to a life of isolation. The topic of high school massacres are usually met with arguments about gun control or hatred towards the culprit, but to assess a period of time when such a tragedy is prevented, take a step back and truly assess the psychological toll it might have on an already outcast and disillusioned teen takes real skill. Avoiding the politics and sensationalism associated with this topic was key, and consequently we are left with a realistic, relatable yet empathetic drama.