`Dance Me Outside': An Offbeat Tale About Getting Even

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XXX "Dance Me Outside," with Adam Beach, Ryan Black, Jennifer Podemski, Kevin Hicks, Michael Greyeyes. Directed by Bruce McDonald, from a script by McDonald, Don McKellar and John Frizzell. Metro Cinemas. No rating; includes rough language, violence. -----------------------------------------------------------------

The villain's easy to spot in this eccentric Canadian comedy-drama about Native American revenge.

But who's the hero? Several candidates present themselves, all of them deeply flawed. But you won't really be able to make up your mind until the movie's over, and even then it's a matter for some debate. The movie is just that unpredictable.

First shown here in March at the American Indian Film Festival, this 84-minute adaptation of W.P. Kinsella's book, "Dance Me Outside," stars Adam Beach and Ryan Black as Frank and Silas, a couple of teenage buddies who come of age on a modern reservation.

The story is presented from Silas' point of view, although it revolves around several whites whose actions fuel the local Indians' resentments and simmering sense of injustice.

One of the white men, Robert (Kevin Hicks), is a do-gooder Toronto lawyer who has married Silas' older sister, Illianna (Lisa Lacroix), and disappoints Silas' mother because his sperm count is too low to guarantee grandchildren. The marriage also seriously irks Gooch (Michael Greyeyes), Illianna's former boyfriend, who has just returned from three years in prison.

Robert is a relatively minor irritant, however, compared to an aggressive drunk, Clarence (Hugh Dillon), who strangles an Indian girl and gets a reduced sentence for manslaughter. When he's paroled, the local community is waiting for him.

Kinsella wrote the novel, "Shoeless Joe," which was filmed as "Field of Dreams," but this is a very different story: a gritty and sardonic tale of racist humiliation, macho traps and roundabout justice in which Native American women play a surprisingly important role.

Filled with characters who are more frustrated than ennobled, "Dance Me Outside" deftly turns a number of narrative conventions upside down, especially during a car-bashing episode, a barroom brawl and a hilarious initiation ceremony that starts out as cruel mockery of one seemingly foolish cuckold. It ends as a testament to his endurance and ability to play the good sport.

Norman Jewison, the director of "Moonstruck," acted as executive producer on the picture, which was partly written by John Frizzell ("I Love a Man in Uniform") and Don McKellar, a prize-winning actor ("Exotica") who also wrote last year's excellent Canadian film, "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould."

Bruce McDonald, who previously directed McKellar's road comedy, "Highway 61," expertly avoids so many cliches about modern reservation life that he makes the subject seem quite new again. He also does an excellent job with a cast that's mostly unknown.

Beach, who played the title role in Disney's "Squanto: A Warrior's Story," is perfect as the goofy Frank, whose laconic utterances ("Do you think women are thinkin' something?") become the movie's chief running gag. McVey brings much-needed amiability to a potentially charmless role, while Black's steady Silas keeps the movie grounded. Jennifer Podemski, as Silas' feisty, ingenious, on-and-off girlfriend, Sadie, nearly walks away with it.