Ella Ballentine in Black Conflux (2021)
No one knows where they’re going. They just end up places, not quite sure how they got there. It’s what they do next that really matters. The words of Canadian filmmaker Nicole Dorsey’s protagonist in Black Conflux encapsulate the cloud of disillusionment that hangs over a small town in 1987 Newfoundland. Dorsey’s eerie debut feature puts her on the map as a promising talent to watch. The film follows the seemingly separate lives of an anxious teenage girl and a self-loathing man, which fatefully collide under the microscope of small-town living. Dorsey exhibits a stunning sense of control as she explores the characters’ day-to-days, bringing a fresh perspective to what coming-of-age means. While the film feels confusing and meandering at times, particularly in the first half, Dorsey manages to bring it all together by the conclusion. The melancholy story engages in thoughtful observations on toxic masculinity, and the pressurized expectations of femininity. Black Conflux stirs up emotions that simmer, not often hitting home in the moment but lingering well beyond its runtime.
The great Ella Ballentine plays the film’s protagonist Jackie, who is at a place of questioning where she fits in the world and who she wants to be. She’s introduced singing Linda Perhaus’ “Hey, Who Really Cares?” in an audition for the school choir; a fitting choice for a character searching for her own voice and wanting to be heard. Ballentine does a wonderful job capturing the sort of fleeting interest Jackie has in choir; sometimes it becomes a faint afterthought as her mind is elsewhere, until the enthusiasm peaks and she’s rushing to be part of it again. Jackie quietly contemplates the push-and-pull of investing her energy in singing and hanging out with her more rebellious friends. Under the guardianship of her distracted aunt, Jackie doesn’t really have a steady figure in her life she can look to for guidance when needed. Part of what influences Jackie comes from the ongoing notion that no one can truly escape the small town they’re all living in. Within this setting, there are pressurized expectations of femininity that Jackie’s friends subscribe to, particularly Amber (Olivia Scriven) who adheres to an idea of what girls should be interested in. The very notion of Jackie being interested in choir is enough for Amber to question, why invest time in that when she could "have fun with boys".
Nicole Dorsey makes a point of contrasting two different perspectives in the film, one of Jackie and the other of a decrepit brewery worker. Dennis (Ryan McDonald), sexually repressed and often found staring intensely into the distance, constantly critiques his every move. He lives a solitary existence and, in the few times he interacts with women, wants to assert dominance. The film shows eerie misogynistic dream sequences where Dennis imagines a group of women by his side, without agency of their own, just in service to his thoughts. These are women he “messed up” his chances with. While the screenplay shows tendencies of letting character traits do the lifting, not entirely moving beyond the surface of who the characters are, McDonald does his best to give an effective performance. He plays the intensity fairly well, and gives off a deeply unsettling aura throughout the film.
By contrasting the perspectives of Jackie and Dennis, the film raises a resonating conversation around the harmful effects of toxic masculinity on womanhood and the acceleration of girls’ journeys into womanhood. On more than one occasion, Jackie is considered to be much older than she actually is, prompting the disturbing reality of teenage girls seen as grown women under the watchful eye of men. Meanwhile, Dennis’s behavior is often met with a “boys will be boys” attitude. His sister watches over him as though he’s still a child. His work buddies merely shake their heads when he bails on a date because of how a woman looked. Throughout the film, there are allusions that eventually Dennis and Jackie will meet, which fills the story with a sense of dread. Eerie imagery, such as fixating on Jackie watching a birdhouse and then cutting to a scene of Dennis drinking from a bird print mug, suggests an inevitable collision between the two characters. There are a few moments where Jackie will see Dennis drive by while out with her friends, their eyes randomly meeting for a second. These scenes capture the small town setting and also build uncertainty as to when the characters will meet, and what will happen.
The small town setting of 1980s Newfoundland, a rarely seen place in films, is captured beautifully. There’s a haunting quality to the sense of place in the film. The 80s are conveyed subtly, not at all overbearing or obviously neon. What Dorsey truly captures is the essence of a spot and the feeling of disillusionment, as though the characters are living in some sort of simulation. The film is a contemplative look at people in perpetual searching, not knowing how to break from their current existence and move on in a world of promise beyond them. Black Conflux slow builds in its exploration of characters going through the motions, and eventually seeing their worlds collide in unexpected ways. The story often sits in contemplation with them, which gives the film a sluggish pace posing the question, where is this going? More often than not, there’s a meandering quality to the film, and a lot of wondering of what Dorsey is ultimately saying. But once the no nonsense ending hits, what becomes crystalized is how much the director (and performers) are able to convey in moments of stillness. It’s the moments of stillness throughout the film, and those times where the characters engage in a daily routine thinking, “Is this it? Is this real?”, that carries Black Conflux to a converging conclusion. The ending, quiet and simple, calls into question if anything Dennis has experienced is real, and gives Jackie a sense of salvation where she’s not defined by anyone or any expectations. Dorsey gives reaffirmation to her protagonist, answering her choral calls.
Black Conflux will be available starting July 2nd on the Digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.