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TBFF Review: 'The Retrieval' is A Finely Crafted and Evocative Film

by Vanessa Martinez
February 12, 2014 12:46 PM
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The Retrieval still

Screening at the 2nd Toronto Black Film Festival (TBFF), which kicked off yesterday, February 11, running through the 16th, is The Retrieval - a film well deserving of our appreciation and attention. Writer/director Chris Eska (2007’s August Evening) has crafted a very unique and cleverly scripted tale about a young boy named Will, played impressively by newcomer Ashton Sanders, who is sent along with his uncle Marcus (Keston John) by a gang of bounty hunters to retrieve Nate (Tishuan Scott), a wanted freed man. 

It’s an unexplored part of history dealing with slavery, especially on film; a complex and jarring dilemma of slaves who are promised a reward for capturing runaways and fugitive black freed men; these are oppressed slaves manipulated and many times coerced into turning against other slaves for monetary gain and survival.

The Retrieval is set during the Civil War, which serves as more of a backdrop. But it’s very much a character-driven narrative between the youngster Will and the seemingly hard-hearted Nate, a man who has undergone a traumatic separation from his wife, while fleeing up north with intentions of returning, and the loss of a child. Nate is reluctant to travel with the orphan Will and his uncle Marcus, as he should be. Their plan is to con Nate into going back to his hometown by telling him that his brother is sick and waiting to see him. There’s a carefully orchestrated plan, which will lead the bounty hunter gang to Nate’s recapture.

The young Will carries a guilty conscience; his uncle is hardly a father figure, and Will begins to seek the comfort and acceptance of the aloof Nate, more so after his uncle perishes during a Union/Confederate encounter. There are so many elements to the narrative crafted with authenticity and humanity. There’s survival, but there’s also the need for kinship, friendship and familial ties, even if such are the surrogate kind. These elements ultimately forgo survival at the very end, in a sense.

There have been comparisons to Django Unchained made on the web from articles written about the film, which I find perplexing. The Retrieval could not be more distinct in tone, style, and narrative in general.  It’s not an epic, grand scale production, but its quality is very competent, especially for a limited budget. The film is admirably photographed; its set design is striking, and its score is effective, adding to the significance of the film. But it would all be remiss if it weren’t for the nuanced and affecting performances by rather unknowns, especially Tishuan Scott and the young Ashton Sanders, which make the film truly compelling to watch.

Retrieval is more of an observant, quietly affecting tale, but a few of its scenes are suspenseful and pack their share of action; they are not necessarily brutal, although they are definitely believable. The film reeks of authenticity, which makes the viewing of it all the more intriguing.

Chris Eska’s sophomore feature film is a well-researched and relevant drama with instinctual and gripping performances, which should definitely garner some accolades along its festival run (Tishuan Scott won the SXSW Grand Jury Prize for lead actor). 

This resonant, gem of a film deserves no less than “sleeper hit” status, along with theatrical distribution, and I’m particularly hopeful for the latter.

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More: Ashton Sanders, Keston Joh, Tishuan Scott

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  • CareyCarey | February 12, 2014 7:58 PMReply

    Vanessa, this post is a perfect example of how you've grown as a writer/reviewer. Well, if I can borrow a slogan from a brand of cigarettes marketed to young professional women... "You've come a long way, baby."

    Yep, I remember those early years. Well, it's safe to say, for the most part, your posts never had that comment magnet, race-baiting qualities of the more popular posts that appear on this site. Nor were they filled with "controversy" at their core, as some posts by Tanya are noted for. And, of course, nobody does it like Sergio. He's the king of comments because he knows a lot of stuff, because he reads a lot of stuff, and people love talking smack/sh*t/ stuff back to him. But you've been there, quietly, yet diligently toiling away in the background. All that to say, you've come a long way. Specifically, I believe you writing structure has improved significantly. And, more importantly, your confidence has appeared to increase. Not only do you appear to be more confident in your writing, it appears you're more confident in giving your opinion in this place of maddening voices hiding behind screen names. A place in-which many find very intimidating.

    Anyway, keep doing your thang woman, many appreciate your efforts (at least I do). Nice review, btw.

  • Donella | February 12, 2014 3:38 PMReply

    My review is mixed.

    Well-shot and photographed.

    Well-directed and performed by all players.

    But writing for the character of the boy is inconsistent and illogical. Bounty-hunting plot is not based on any authentic episode in history, according to the director who is also the screenwriter.

  • Donella | February 13, 2014 5:47 PM

    I already mentioned that the film was well-directed and ably-performed, but the director/screenwriter revealed the boy as wily, cunning, and adept at negotiating with adults in a harsh world.

    Then, at the last twenty to thirty minutes of film, the boy's brain just freezes.

    Inconsistent writing.

    I think we've agreed on just about every film review, and most of this particular film review, with one small point of disagreement. No biggie.

  • Vanessa Martinez | February 12, 2014 6:35 PM

    It's definitely a work of fiction, and not based on any real life events. To me, it made perfect sense for the young boy to be "inconsistent," He was torn and wanted to bond with - and even escape with - who would perhaps become a surrogate father - the very man he was trying to capture.

    He was placed in an awful predicament, especially for a boy his age, an orphan at that, and he felt very guilty. There were a lot of complex emotions and behaviors that he had to display, and I felt that the director did a remarkable job guiding these actors, especially the young newcomer. I appreciated the story, which seemed very plausible to have happened during that time, and quite unique for a film, "Django" aside.

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