Riverhead (Courtesy of Justin Oakey)

Riverhead: Small Town Violence In Newfoundland

Riverhead, director Justin Oakey’s first feature film, debuts on Friday, September 16th at the Atlantic Film Festival, bringing a fantastic Newfoundland experience to the mainland.

Pulling strongly from Oakey’s Newfoundlander roots, Riverhead is the compelling drama of a small town in rural Newfoundland, torn apart by a longstanding family grudge. An older member of the community, Patrick Whelan (Lawrence Barry) is put at odds with the children of a long-gone family foe after one of them, Michael Windsor (Stephen Oates), returns from prison with a grudge. As tensions rise, tempers flare, and the situation degenerates into violence, family bonds are tested and the town divides itself along lines of blood and religion.

One of the most immediate charms of Riverhead is the setting, as the landscape and culture of rural Newfoundland impacts every aspect of the film. From the broad wilderness shots to the slow crawls past weather-worn houses, all the way to the smaller setpiece touches like wood-burning stoves in people’s houses, the film plays off of every visual aspect of the Newfoundland filming locations with gorgeous results.

Beyond the visuals though, Riverhead’s roots shine through in the performance and dialogue, with thick accents and profanity-laden colloquial turns of phrase which make it clear with every line that this is Newfoundland’s story, not anyone else’s. Although this heavily localized dialogue can make it difficult for any mainlanders unfamiliar with the accent to fully understand everything that’s said at first, the film’s slow opening gives audiences time to acclimatize to the language without missing vital details.

While Riverhead’s plot is a slow, steady build in terms of pacing, the story is engrossing and well structured, with the characters’ actions and personalities coming off as quite natural. It’s clear from the writing that Oakey understands what makes the difference between good drama and bad. It’s not the artificial tension of unbelievable plot twists and erratic overreactions that drives the plot like in similar films, it’s the characters reacting to each other in believable ways, thinking of their families, their past, and what they feel needs to be done. While each step escalates the conflict further out of control, the actions of all the film’s cast are understandable and often sympathetic, torn over whether forgiveness can be an option when someone dear has been harmed.

(Courtesy Of Justin Oakey)
Evan Mercer and Stephen Oates as Robert and Michael Windsor (Courtesy Of Justin Oakey)

As for the film’s acting, Lawrence Barry makes a compelling leading man, gruff but lovable, capturing the character of a caring father on one hand and a man slowly getting further caught up in the madness of the feud on the other. Stephen Oates lends a fantastic performance opposite him, playing into his more antagonistic role as a rough young man filled with anger and aggression, ready to do what he feels needs to be done to settle the score. The two play off each other quite well in shared scenes, filling them with a palpable tension and animosity.

All in all, Riverhead is a fantastic showcase of unfiltered Newfoundland talent and culture. With solid writing, cinematography, and acting, it’s a film well worth watching.

Riverhead premieres at the Atlantic Film Festival. The screening is Friday September 16, 2016, 9:30PM at Cineplex Cinemas Park Lane Theatre 3 Halifax, NS.