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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 12.13.13] Canada drama

A few years ago actor Peter Stebbings took a shot at directing and produced the hugely enjoyable quasi-superhero movie Defendor (review). Stebbings has been busy working in front of the camera for the last few years but recently he also managed some time to return to the director's chair with a very different drama, one that doesn't include masked heroes but rather a different type of hero.

Empire of Dirt stars newcomer Cara Gee as Lena, a hardworking single mother trying to deal with her rebellious teen daughter Peeka (Shay Eyre). Lena loses her job, she follows up on an opportunity that leads her to a strip club but she finally gives up on big city life when Peeka sniffs glue and lands herself in the hospital where it becomes clear that there's more going on with the teen than just a few bad decisions and a couple of troublemaking boys. Lena packs up their belongings and the pair break out of the hospital and hitchhike into the country to shack up with Minerva (Jennifer Podemski), a woman from Lena's past who, as it turns out, is more than just an old acquaintance.

In part, Empire of Dirt an interesting look at the cycle of abuse and the strength and perseverance it takes to break it. Shannon Masters' script deals specifically with the issue in a First Nations setting, all three women are Cree and Lena spends much of her free time counselling other First Nations kids on the outs, but it's a universal story about family and hardships that one generation knowingly, and sometimes unknowingly, inflicts on the other, the hard decisions that shape our lives and the realization that in order to move on, sometimes you have to admit that you're wrong.

But Empire of Dirt isn't all family drama. Lena's return to her home town also leads to the resurrection of past demons, loves, friendships and rivalries that have lasted through the years. In a way, it's also a story of small town living, of the people who never "got out" and the petty ugliness of their hatred for those who did manage to escape regardless of the manner or reason for leaving. Lena's life hasn't been peaches and cream since she left but her struggles with substance abuse and sordid jobs are of little importance to the people who feel her return is in some strange way impeding their lives.

The emotional depth of Empire of Dirt is of no surprise; Stebbings showed a similar understanding for fragile egos and sensitive relationships with his debut film and this continues that trend, delivering a movie that is deeply touching and in the end, positive without being sugar-coated, a point that is hit home by a brilliant credits monologue about how sometimes it's good to be Indian and sometimes it's not, and how sometimes life deals you shitty cards but you just have to pick yourself up and move forward, even if it includes taking steps back; a heartfelt sentiment which permeates through the entire movie.

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