During our teens, we all go through an awkward phase at some point. For most of us, I suspect, it’s around 14 or 15. That’s the age when childhood’s comforts and the allure of growing up yanks us in opposite directions. Kayak to Klemtu’s 14-year old heroine Ella (Ta’kaiya Blaney) receives the very adult task of carrying out her late uncle’s final wishes. Unprepared for adulthood yet ready to leave her childhood behind, Ella embarks on a journey we can all relate too. Director Zoe Leigh Hopkins approaches the coming-of-age tale from a unique angle. Kayak to Klemtu fuses a family drama with a road trip movie and adds an eco-friendly message.
The film begins with title cards explaining what’s at stake. A proposed pipeline will allow oil tankers to travel the Inside Passage along the Great Bear Rainforest. And should one of these ships spill their load it would create an ecological disaster. Ella’s late uncle Dave (Evan Adams) was an environmentalist. Before passing, he tasked her with travelling to a hearing in Klemtu to speak out against the pipeline. Uncomfortable with speaking about a homeland she’s never known, Ella decides to travel along the coast, from Tla’Amin to Klemtu by kayak. Accompanying her is a motley crew of her uncle’s widow Cory (Sonja Bennett), her emo cousin Alex (Jared Ager-Foster), and her crotchety uncle Don (Lorne Cardinal).
Ella is the only member of her family with no connection to Klemtu. Even her white aunt and cousin spent time living there. As teenagers, we’re always looking for ways to define ourselves; through our choice of music, how we dress, and who we hang out with. We fumble through our teens seeking answers about who we are and who will be become. It’s that feeling which makes Ella’s quest to connect with her roots feel universally relatable.
The teenagers in my life prefer to distance themselves from their family to spend time with their friends. So, despite its rocky moments, I found Ella’s trip with her family quite moving. This is a girl who swore off Facebook, the mall, and her iPhone to make good on her promise, connect with her family’s roots, and figure out who she is. When so many teens guffaw at taking out the garbage or doing dishes, watching Ella honour her dead uncle’s memory feels like the stuff of fantasy. This topic is a personal soft spot for me and it pulled at my heartstrings with the strength of The Winter Soldier’s iron grip.
The Supporting cast is Kayak to Klemtu’s weakest element. The thinly sketched characters don’t offer the actors room to inhabit their roles. Aunt Cory doesn’t have much meaningful screen time and her son Alex gets one big dramatic moment and fumbles it. They’re the sort of performances you forget about after a week. Only the curmudgeonly uncle Don leaves a lasting impression. He bursts with a cranky bluster that says, “I take pride in getting up on the wrong side of bed.” He’s also the type who complains no matter what you ask of him but he always caves in the end. It’s a spot-on performance of the type of lovable surly men who made an impact on me as a kid.
Kayak to Klemtu features so much enthralling photography that it might secretly be B.C. tourism board propaganda. This film has it all; stunning landscapes, fleeting glimpses of wildlife, and fantastic applications of natural light. DP Vince Arvidson captures a large portion of the film amidst golden hour’s magical glow. Watching sunset descend upon a west coast forest never gets old. 45-minutes into Ella’s kayak adventure up the coastline, I was ready to pack up and head out west.
A man who knows he is about to die tasks a child with carrying on his legacy. It’s a simple premise, but one with enormous emotional weight behind it. Kayak to Klemtu tells a poignant story about family, self-discovery and legacy, and does so against the backdrop of some of Canada’s most breathtaking landscapes. And even though I have many technical nits to pick with this film, Kayak to Klemtu is much better than the sum of its parts.