Toronto Star, Friday March 25, 2005

Movies / A&E

Quebec chase film is scenic,
hits ditch as a crime drama

Hold on to Your Hat!
Starring Wally Cheezo, loula Volkova and Branda Papatie.

Written and directed by Denis Boivin.
98 minutes. At the Carlton. 14A


Denis Boivin has made his way in the Quebec film business making educational and documentary films. Hold on to Your Hat! is his first dramatic feature, but it's a struggle to follow a story that seems more inclined to instruct than entertain.

The subject matter is life for Quebec's northern native communities and the activities of the Russian mafia in the North American drug and prostitution trades. Working from a script as convoluted as the 2,500-km. road trip around Quebec that the central character makes, Boivin turns an unlikely marriage of material into a film that may be inspired by real life but foils all expectations of a crime drama.

Quebec's winter landscapes make a gorgeous backdrop to the action. In the opening scene Sam, a young Anishnabe man in a colourful toque, is paddling over a half-frozen river toward his mother's home.

He has picked up the mail, and there's a videocassette with a message from his girlfriend Migona, who is a student living on a reserve near Quebec City. Sam's mother urges him to go and join Migona, and hands him the keys to a vintage red pick-up truck his grandfather once owned.

Somewhere outside Montreal, in a gas station washroom, Sam meets a man who looks just like him. He's a Russian from Kazakhstan, and a member of a ruthless gang of intercontinental drug dealers. Somehow they've tricked Tania, a literature student in Russia, to come to Canada to work off a debt she incurred in a car accident they arranged.

Through a series of clumsy flashbacks we learn that Tania has been indentured as a stripper and a prostitute. Spying a means of escape at the gas station, she dives into the back of Sam's truck.

Eluding their pursuers in a pathetic car chase, Sam and Tania take a scenic route to Quebec City where Migona obligingly allows the Russian bombshell to stay in her home on the reserve. But Tania's Russian compatriots, believing she is carrying $23,000 worth of their cocaine, soon trace her whereabouts.

In the confrontation that follows, Sam kills Kazakh, the Russian who looks just like him. Now he's really on the run, certain he'll be incarcerated even though he acted in self-defence.

Crudely animated inserts of a toy car running over a map of Quebec trace the new route, to the most remote Indian and Innu villages on the northern shores of the St. Lawrence River. Stopping to visit Sam's father, a shaman, Sam and Tania get a boost from traditional wisdom. They head for a place where no one will find them, with Gilles Vigneault's "Mon Pays" blaring over the soundtrack. Meanwhile the RCMP are questioning Migona on her boyfriend's involvement with the Russian mafia. Despite her suspicions about Tania, Migona doesn't betray Sam.

Boivin undercuts his intention of making a respectful presentation of aboriginal life with a plot that grows sillier with every bend in the road. Migona's birthday is the occasion for a visit to a male strip bar. Tania dyes her hair blue and Sam submits to a drug trial in a small-town clinic to earn $1,500. They hole up in a motel and drink themselves into unconsciousness on Polish vodka.

The story line often appears dictated by the availability of locations and props, such as the cherry-red vintage pick-up truck.

Lengthy digressions along the way include a conversation about how the fall of communism was responsible for a Russian crime wave. "Democracy made a whore out of me," says Tania.

In an anthropological diversion, Migona explains the migration theory of how North American first nations arrived on the continent via the land bridge across the Bering Sea. Hence the similarity between Sam and Kazakh.

Wally Cheezo, in his first screen role, gives a capable performance as Sam, as does Branda Papatie as Migona. Had Boivin gone for a story more rooted in the real lives and culture of their communities he might have made a much more credible film.

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