Rustic Oracle is the equally heart-wrenching and heartwarming MMIWG drama every Canadian needs to see | Sonia Boileau's moving film follows a mother and daughter coping with grief and reparing their relationship
This is part of a series of essays in response to our recent project CBC Arts Presents: The 50 Greatest Films Directed by Canadians. We asked writers to choose a Canadian-directed film that they believe should have been included — particularly ones that fill the representational gaps in Canada's film history — and tell us why it deserves to be there.
There has been an incredible boom of Indigenous filmmaking in Canada in the last decade; three of the five Indigenous films on CBC's list The 50 Greatest Films Directed by Canadians were debut feature films that were made in the last decade. (Jeff Barnaby's Rhymes for Young Ghouls would even make my list of the best films in the history of cinema.) But many of the films that have come out of this boom have struggled to find the audience they deserve, often for lack of a marketing budget.
There are many low-budget, lower-profile movies made by Indigenous filmmakers in the last few years that are must-watches — films like Zoe Leigh Hopkins' Run Woman Run (2021), Loretta Scott Todd's Monkey Beach (2020), and Kim O'Bomsawin's Call Me Human (2020).
And there's no greater example of this than Sonia Bonspille Boileau's Rustic Oracle, an exemplary, heart-wrenching and heartwarming film that needs to be seen by every Canadian.
Rustic Oracle is the best fiction feature film I've seen that addresses the national tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG). It's also a touching, sensitive story of a grieving family — a young Mohawk girl losing her innocence as she discovers the cruelty of the adult and settler world, and an estranged mother and daughter finding their way back to each other.
Set in the late 1990s, the film follows eight-year-old Ivy (Lake Delisle) and her mother Susan (Carmen Moore) as they head on a road trip in search of Ivy's 18-year-old sister Heather (McKenzie Deer Robinson), who disappeared without a trace. When the settler police service meets Susan with openly racist comments and indifference about solving the case, she has no choice but to look for her daughter herself, with Ivy in tow.
The film is told from Ivy's perspective as an adult (played by the great Devery Jacobs) looking back at her childhood and piecing together the meaning of her memories. As a child, Ivy is never fully privy to everything that's happening. As a child, she also doesn't understand everything she actually does see and hear. Important conversations are always happening in another room, usually when adults think she isn't listening — even though she often is.
In an early scene in the film, we watch Ivy tiptoe out of her bedroom at night, having awoken to the sounds of adult voices in the kitchen: her mother's and a police officer's. She tentatively moves through the shadows to listen to what they're discussing in the harsh fluorescent light of the kitchen. It's a perfect metaphor for what happens to Ivy in the film: she leaves the safe spaces of childhood (her dark bedroom) where she is physically and metaphorically protected from the harsh realities of the adult world. And she does so when the adults aren't watching; they can't stop her, and she doesn't really want them to either.
Boileau is incredibly attentive to blocking and framing; Ivy regularly crosses physical thresholds that also stand in for metaphorical ones. Throughout the film, the camera is close to Ivy; much of the time, Susan is at the back of the frame, as if unreachable, in another world from Ivy.
Susan's emotional distance is not for want of caring — it's because she cares too much. She's doing everything she can to keep her fear and anxieties about Heather's disappearance to herself. But it often means she's not attentive to Ivy's emotional needs, becoming standoffish and short. The film tracks the pair as they move closer and closer to one another in the frame, partly thanks to the forced proximity of sharing a car and a hotel room, which mirrors their slowly increasing emotional closeness.
Although Rustic Oracle deals with the aftermath of incredibly tragic and traumatic events, the film itself remains hopeful. Boileau makes time for a scene at a cafe where Ivy and Carmen play tic tac toe and end up in stitches, a reminder of the deep love between mother and daughter. We meet the community of women who support Ivy and Carmen on their journey, from Carmen's best friend in Ottawa, who gives Ivy affection when Susan can't, to a woman at the friendship centre in Montreal who aids their search.
And there's the narrative that bookends the film: an adult Ivy telling this story in voiceover for her daughter, also named Heather, who reminds her of her sister daily, and to whom Ivy gives the warmth that we watched Carmen learn to show.
Rustic Oracle isn't strictly about the indifference of the settler world to Indigenous trauma, but it's baked into the film's grammar and structure. The road trip is only necessary because the police won't do their job. The people who provide Ivy and Carmen with support tend to be Indigenous people, not settlers, while Ivy's discovery of the cruel adult world coincides with a road trip off the reserve and into settler spaces.
The film is realistic about colonialism, but not confrontational, focusing instead on asking settler audiences to empathize with the characters. We feel their extremely justified frustrations with settler institutions and racism — but mostly, we're invested in their relationships. And with the final title card, the film encourages us to stay invested in the stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Watch Rustic Oracle for free on CBC Gem.