Critipeg: Portraits From a Fire

★★★★ out of 5

Shot at Tl’etinqox (Anaham) Reserve in British Columbia, Trevor Mack’s drama Portraits From a Fire follows 16-yearold Tyler – a budding filmmaker – as the truth of his family’s past is revealed to him while he undertakes his newest cinematic project.

There’s something about Portraits From a Fire that’s incredibly heartwarming.

The film begins with brief excerpts of home-video footage that feature a smiling young family: a mother, a father and a newborn baby. But then the scene changes, transitioning seamlessly into the present day, where the audience is taken into the point of view of Tyler’s (William Lulua) camera. 

Tyler is shown to make fantastical sci-fi motion pictures using scraps he salvaged or borrowed to make up his elaborate sets.

Moments like these crop up throughout the story, and they make up some of the most enjoyable scenes. For that reason, Lulua’s performance is one of the best parts of the film.

Specifically, Lulua is able to portray his character with such earnest conviction and sincerity that it’s easy to root for him the entire time. It’s a joy to watch.

Another fantastic aspect of Portraits From a Fire is the way it navigates mood. Through seemingly simple changes in setting, lighting or music, moments of whimsy instantly change to something more sombre and melancholic.

Impressively, these changes are never jarring or out of place. In fact, they establish a great deal of story. In seconds, the complex nuances of Tyler’s circumstances are clear.

Despite the supportive community that rallies behind his projects, the sadness he feels about the estrangement he has from his father is easily conveyed. From there, it’s easy for the audience to intuit the possible loss and trauma the family has suffered.

The amount of information presented in those few short, seemingly lighthearted scenes is truly impressive.

Additionally, as the narrative unfolds and Tyler begins to learn about his family’s secrets, elements of magical realism appear to illustrate the fragmented connection between Tyler and his mother.

This is depicted through a staticky camera special effect that cloaks the mother as she appears from time to time, watching over her family as a ghost.

The choice to use this particular effect is compelling, as it links Tyler’s filmmaking to spirituality, signifying the importance of his craft in how it provides him an avenue to reach his lost loved ones. It’s beautiful in how much meaning it holds.

Everything considered, Portraits From a Fire is a must-watch. It’s easy to pick up on how much heart and consideration went into every second of the film. Its themes are universal and far-reaching. Even with its solemn instances, there’s a great deal of happiness to be felt throughout the story.

Published in Volume 76, Number 07 of The Uniter (October 28, 2021)

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