Though author Richard Wagamese's (Ojibwe) 2012 novel Indian Horse wove fictional Indigenous characters together over nearly three decades in Canada, the history behind the work is all too real: For well over 100 years, so-called residential schools in North America worked to assimilate Native youths into an overly religious and decidedly white way of life. They lost their names, their language, their agency—and if attempting to erase their culture and heritage weren't enough, it's estimated thousands of Native youths died while incarcerated in such schools. Wagamese died in 2017, unfortunately, before the cinematic version of Indian Horse could make it to the big screen, but the legacy of his words lives on in this powerful movie.

It begins with an escape attempt whereupon 6-year-old Saul Indian Horse (Sladen Peltier) loses his entire family as they flee the institutions. It's a difficult story thereafter, from the ruthless punishment doled out by emotionless nuns to the hateful and abusive rhetoric and actions of the priesthood. Actor Sladen Peltier tries his best here, but his emotional depth is lacking, at least until he discovers ice hockey. After the time jump, we find a teenaged Saul (Forrest Goodluck, whom SFR interviewed in our 3 Questions section this week) excelling at sport but still embroiled in open racism. Haunted by the school, Saul struggles to stay alive, turning to alcoholism to dull the pain.

Ajuawak Kapashesit as the adult Saul particularly brings the heat, from the simplest voiceless glances and cold, tired rage emanating from his body. Saul winds up joining a minor league hockey team, and it's here that Indian Horse nearly convinces us it's erring dangerously close to the white savior trope before dropping a bombshell that isn't exactly surprising, though is nonetheless explosive. The story turns to one of redemption, or at least forgiveness, and Wagamese's prose rings strong throughout the final emotional moments.

8
+Kapashesit nails it; eye-opening

-Some performances lacking

Indian Horse
Directed by Stephen S Campanelli
With Peltier, Goodluck and Kapashesit
Violet Crown, NR, 101 min.