Bruce Cockburn’s title tune for Don Shebib’s iconic Canadian classic, Goin’ Down The Road, makes a brief appearance at the top of Down The Road Again, Shebib’s late arriving follow-up, but it’s enough to bring some mist to the eyes.
Shot on a shoe-string, largely improvised, the original Road blasted into Canadian theatres in 1970, cocky and slightly dangerous like Pete and Joey, the two Cape Bretoners in the film who arrive in Toronto expecting riches and glory. Instead they find unemployment, indifference, and alienation and the movie ends with them heading west still looking for “better” even if it means leaving a wife and unborn child behind.
Now in the second film, it is decades later and Pete is a Vancouver mail carrier facing retirement, and Joey has faced the one angle he couldn’t finesse: death. He leaves Pete the can with his ashes, a mission to return them to Cape Breton for dispersal in the Atlantic, and a series of letters to be opened along the way.
Pete’s first stop is in Toronto where he must mend fences with Joey’s abandoned wife, Betty, and Joey’s grown daughter, Betty Jo, whose has daddy issues. Betty Jo attaches herself to Pete’s pilgramage to Cape Breton, and as the trip progresses old wounds are dressed and new revelations arise.
If the first movie was a young man’s movie, the second one is an older man’s film: an attempt to sum up a life that began as a firecracker and somehow turned out to be a squib.
Derek McGrath as Pete begins as an affable old duffer, content to potter away what remains of his life in his garden and in hopes of giving his life some meaning by turning it into a book. Anyone with memories of the first film will ache with heartbreak for the young Pete; the old man in front of us seems so defeated. But there is a brilliant moment midway through this film when McGrath’s Pete, alone in a sterile conference room, is confronted with the greatest failure of his life and McGrath’s face is a quiet storm of emotion and the audience sees that passionate young man again. After that, the film finds its footing and connection to its predecessor.
Kathleen Robertson has a brittle edge as Betty Jo that nicely thaws as Pete lets her see her father as the man he was, and as she finds romance with lawyer Matt, (rather squarely played by Anthony Lemke).
Jayne Eastwood returns as Betty, all bitterness and dashed hopes, and Cape Bretoner Cayle Chernin (in her last role before she passed away) is all graciousness and forgiveness as Betty’s friend, Selena. Tedde Moore gives a sweetly sad performance as Matt’s mother who has a long ago connection to Pete lost in the fog of Alzheimer’s.
While this film has a lot more plot than the first film, it is still a simple story simply told. Shebib loves his actors and their characters and frames his film in big emotion capturing close-up. There is humour and pathos and we want to see these people find peace with their lives. More times than not, the dialogue is more naturalisticly functional than memorable but it does have this great posthumous line from Joey that every Cape Bretoner can agree with: “I have always been a happy man, Pete, but I haven’t had a happy life.”
There are some disappointments: the soundtrack is mostly generic golden oldies with nothing from the boys’ home island (and I’m not talking fiddlers either-there were a lot of rock and rollers when the boys crossed the causeway back when); and, despite a few establishing shots of the Sydney waterfront, it was shot mostly in Toronto which okay except for when Joey’s ashes are scattered over the Atlantic it looks like a placid Lake Ontario. (I’m guessing budgetary restrictions are to blame for both decisions.)
Like its predecessor, which owed a lot to the NFB which in turned owed a lot to British documentary filmmakers, this film feels closer to a quiet British film, like Last Orders, than the emotionally manipulative films from the United States. And that is to its credit.
Although it’s great to see montages from the original on the big screen, Down The Road Again is its own film and succeeds on that level. None of us will ever recapture the glory days of our youth, the film says, but we can still enjoy cleaning up the mess we made along the way.
Down The Road Again is playing daily at the Empire Theatres Sydney Studio Ten until Thursday, November 3.