Four main characters. Four main stories. A moderate amount of interconnectedness. Powerful, yet still slightly underdone by the vignette style. That’s how I’d summarize The Valley Below in just a few short words. The film has four leading characters, and each of these characters gets his or her own story. Having several short films joined together, sometimes with characters showing up in each other’s story, feels cheap and detracts from the experience. And yet, I was engaged, in large part because of how realistic the characters are.
Here are the stories. Kate (Mikaela Cochrane) is about to head to university and leave her small-town life and boyfriend, but then she learns that she’s pregnant. Warren (Kris Demeanor) has a little bit of a problem with alcohol, but still holds out hope that he can reconcile with his ex-wife and daughter. Gordon (Stephen Boggaert) — Kate’s father — is having trouble connecting with his wife, but is thriving as a taxidermist. And Barry (Alejandro Rae) is a police constable and radio DJ, who gets to be the viewpoint through which we see our film’s depressing conclusion.
This all takes place in the badlands of Alberta, the center of which is Drumheller. As someone who lives in Alberta, I can tell you that first-time feature director Kyle Thomas does a wonderful job of capturing both the atmosphere and feel of the province. Apart from the narrative, I felt like I was just watching someone follow around regular residents as they deal with their issues.
That authenticity is a large reason why The Valley Below works to any great extent. The characters that are created here feel so real, the dialogue they have is so natural, and their interactions feel incredibly real. Fake any of this, and the film loses its power. But by giving us realistic characters, we start to buy into the narrative — even while occasionally being taken out by the vignette ending and moving to a new one — and the ability to be emotionally impacted by the proceedings remains a possibility.
Thankfully, none of the intersection points feel contrived. Multiple characters from earlier stories show up in later ones, and I’m sure that characters from later on had cameos earlier. I’ll have to watch it again someday in order to figure that out. But it’s not like a character shows up later on and with a subtle nod to the camera announces “yes, I’m back.” It’s all natural and organic, much like the rest of the film. There are no contrivances to try to bring a favorite back; if someone’s there, it’s for a reason that feels right.
Even though some of the characters look, on paper, like stereotypes, they feel like anything but when actually watching the film. The teenager whose dreams might be ruined by a pregnancy? An alcoholic hoping to spend time with his daughter? An introverted man whose passion is taxidermy? Okay, maybe the last one isn’t as cliché as the others, but you’ve seen these roles before. Not like this, you haven’t. These characters are written with depth and intelligence; they feel anything but genre tropes.
It also helps that the acting is so good. You probably won’t recognize many of the actors in this film, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t do a great job. All four of the aforementioned leads are wonderful to watch, and do an especially great job at delivering scriptless-like dialogue. No, that’s not a real saying, but I’m saying it nonetheless. It doesn’t feel like The Valley Below had a screenplay for dialogue; that’s how natural it feels, and how good a job the actors did at delivering it.
The Valley Below is an emotionally compelling drama consisting of four vignettes that all tie together and all speak to one point: life in the badlands of Alberta is depressing. Thanks to engaging, realistic characters and natural dialogue, this is a film that feels less like a narrative feature and more like a real-world glimpse into the lives of people living in Drumheller. And, hey, the filmmakers didn’t even have (many) gratuitous shots of dinosaurs. That, folks, is restraint!