The late Richard Wagamese’s 2012 novel, ‘Indian Horse’, explores the journey of an Ojibway boy who, during the 1960’s, managed to escape the horrors of a residential school by playing hockey. To say it’s an essential piece of national literature is an understatement – this is an extremely important story that should be a mandatory read for all Canadians.
A screen adaptation was inevitable, and as vital – even if it doesn’t quite reach the peak of resonance that the story did in print.
Directed by Stephen Campanelli, with a pretty famous name as one of the producers (Clint Eastwood, perhaps you’ve heard of him), ‘Indian Horse’ isn’t the simplest of tales to transfer from book to the screen. The story is (obviously) a very personal one – as a page turner, the one-on-one approach completely captures the reader. The film adaptation finds the going a little more bumpy, but its intentions remain intact.
The film’s protagonist, Saul Indian Horse (played at 7 years old by Sladen Peltier, Forrest Goodluck at 15, and Ajuawak Kapasheshit at 22) is torn from his family and culture as a wee lad and placed in a Northern Ontario residental school where the only thing taught, he explains via narration was “..to endure”. In such a place, escape is punished. Suicide is tragically common. The only light? Saul has a gift.
A hockey prodigy, the boy’s skills on ice far surpass older, bigger players. As such, he’s adopted by Fred Kelly (Michael Lawrenchuk), who runs a travelling team of indigenous players. Saul continues to light it up, catching the attention of the NHL’s Maple Leafs, who place him on their junior squad. However, the racism Saul faces every game begins to overwhelm him, eventually resulting in alcoholism and brokenness.
The trailer might lead you to believe that ‘Indian Horse’ is a sports movie. It’s not. Well…..not really. The good old hockey game rests near the heart of ‘Indian Horse’, but the story is really about coming to terms with the past in order to start the healing process. Not an easy task, to be sure…and thus, not an easy film to make. That’s why I give full credit for the effort here.
What ‘Indian Horse’ lacks in polish, it more than makes up for in pure purpose. See it.