Berlinale 2021: “Night Raiders” warps Native issues into a weak YA thriller

Night Raiders (Berlinale)

Danis Goulet’s sci-fi adventure intriguingly explores the systematic eradication of indigenous peoples through a Hunger Games lens, but falters when it leans too close to the conventions of that already-creaky genre.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Berlin Film Festival.)

Night Raiders is yet another story involving grim dystopian futures and a seemingly ordinary kid who gradually discovers that she possesses extraordinary powers that might help change things at last. In an effort to keep it from coming across as nothing but a clone of The Hunger Games, Divergent and the rest, writer-director Danis Goulet has constructed the story to also serve as a parable for the systematic eradication of the indigenous people of North America throughout history. 

This aspect, along with the presence of Taika Waititi’s name in the credits as executive producer, might earn the film some attention at first. But while this proves to be the most interesting element, it cannot quite eradicate the overly familiar feeling of the rest of it.

In the post-apocalyptic future posited here, the government has decreed all children to be state property and sends them all to military academies, where they can be trained to serve as soldiers in the never-ending war. 

Of course, some people are none too keen on sending their kids off to serve as cannon fodder, despite the propaganda promising a better life, and more drastic measures are taken to round up those children. Niska (Elle Maija Tailfeathers) is an indigenous Cree woman who has taken to living in the woods with her young daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) in order to evade the ever-present drones on the lookout for errant kids. 

After Waseese suffers an injury and the two are forced to go on the run, Niska realizes that she cannot help her daughter and makes the heartbreaking decision to allow the government troops to capture her so she can receive medical treatment. 

When Raiders leans into the familiar genre tropes involving YA-style dystopian futures and such, it gets fairly tiresome.

Several months pass and Niska (who’s been trying to figure out a way of springing Waseese from the academy before she is shipped off) falls in with the Night Raiders, a group of renegade Cree who see the government taking their children and indoctrinating them as the latest twist on the white man’s unceasing attempts to eradicate them. They’re determined to stop it. Meanwhile, Waseese (renamed Elizabeth) wrestles with her belief that Niska simply abandoned her and her dawning realization that she may have some heretofore unknown powers of her own.

When Goulet uses the story as a way of underlining the long-standing mistreatment of the people of the First Nations, Night Raiders is reasonably interesting. It’s not exactly subtle, I suppose, and some of the exposition in this regard is a bit clunky. That said, these moments have energy and purpose to them that help them work, mostly thanks to strong performances by Tailfeathers, Letexier-Hart, and Alex Tarrant as one of the rebel leaders.

However, when Raiders leans into the familiar genre tropes involving YA-style dystopian futures and such, it gets fairly tiresome. This stuff isn’t bad—you and I have both seen worse variations on this particular theme—but it’s clear that Goulet isn’t into it nearly as much as the social commentary. A climactic raid on the compound, in which Waseese finally embraces her gifts in full, is listlessly staged and executed, shoving the more interesting stuff into the background.

Night Raiders has some admirable ambitions, but Goulet’s attempt to fuse the thought-provoking narrative at its center onto a more commercially viable structure is an experiment that doesn’t quite work. That said, the film is only a near-miss; hopefully when it comes time to make her next project, Goulet will have the confidence to tell the story that she wants in a direct manner, and leave the tacked-on genre trappings behind.

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Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.

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