First-time feature director Kyle Thomas’ The Valley Below is an ensemble drama of relentless compassion, situated around the concepts of love, family and the fragility of the human condition. Set around four seasons in the small town of Drumheller, Alberta, the film is divided into four segments, operating with equal amounts of delight and despair for its core cast of characters.
Each protagonist holds a unique semblance, encapsulating a nuanced, subtly-dimensionalized portrait of rural living, and the turmoils that come with it. Over the course of the film’s duration, these characters intersect in interesting ways, that don’t feel deliberate, instead building towards the great idea of a diverse community. A young woman (Mikaela Cochrane) must choose between her present state of happiness and securing a better future; a Zamboni driver (Kris Demeanor) with musical aspirations deals with substance abuse; an withdrawn taxidermist (Stephen Bogaert) finds his family life slowly decomposing; and a police constable (Alejandro Rae) watches over the town despite holding a singular and lonely home life. These actors display a gentle sense of characterization that is tied to the western Canadian spirit, with Demeanor being the standout, no better communicated in his heart-wrenching performance of an original song titled ‘The Next Life’.
Music plays a big role throughout, as each section features an original score composed by a different Canadian musician. Such artists as Rae Spoon, Eamon McGrath, Gavin Gardiner (of The Wooden Sky fame), and Dan Mangan make up this group, and allow for a bluesy, folk-driven style to heighten the emotional impact apparent in each sequence. It was Thomas’ intention to appropriate a unique aural element to each storyline, which in turn complements the narrative and visual outlook. Just as much, the cinematography from Mike McLaughlin serves to register the beauty of the barren Albertan landscape, at times breathtaking despite its bleak nature.
Thomas, who, also wrote, edited, and co-produced the film, demonstrates a great understanding of the tenets of story and character, implanting emotional depth by way of understated cues, and guiding performances that border on minimalist procedures. Reflecting a tendency that no doubt holds inspiration in American indie film practices, there have been few Canadian feature debuts as striking as what Thomas has brought forward. He is certainly a director worth looking out for in the near future.
The Valley Below plays at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto, from March 6th-11th.