Atlanta Film Festival 2022: Portraits From a Fire

Directed by: Trevor Mack
Distributed by: TBA

Written by Anna Harrison


It makes me feel somewhat guilty to give “Portraits From a Fire” a less-than-stellar score—not because the movie deserves it, but because it’s so earnest that it breaks my heart a little to criticize it. The story is one clearly close to director Trevor Mack’s heart, and while the specifics of his own life may vary (I sincerely hope they do) from what’s seen in “Portraits From a Fire,” it’s hard not to see the character of Tyler (William Magnus Lulua) as a stand-in for young Mack: Tyler is a lonely teenager who has glommed on to films and filmmaking as a way to connect with others, likely as Mack did, likely as every filmmaker ever has done. Tyler’s dad (Nathaniel Arcand) remains distant for some unknown reason, making excuses to avoid the rinky-dink screenings that Tyler hosts. Tyler’s movies aren’t good, of course, but like “Portraits From a Fire” itself, they’re sweet and solemn, and Tyler pours his energy into his films even if he can’t pronounce “Cannes” quite correctly.

Though some of the elders in Tyler’s Tsilhqot’in community lend him their support (in particular Sammy Stump, portrayed by nonactor Sammy Stump, who may have missed his calling as a comedian), he still feels alone and yearns to be closer with his father. The arrival of a troubled young man named Aaron (Asivak Koostachin) briefly makes Tyler’s life less isolated, but his presence brings more questions than answers and sets Tyler to wondering what exactly happened to his mother, a subject on which his father remains tight-lipped (how Tyler has gone over a decade without learning anything about his mother is the bigger mystery here, however).

The best thing about “Portraits of a Fire” is the way it presents Tyler’s fracture or, in some cases, completely fabricated memories of his younger childhood. In these moments, the screen glitches and the sound distorts—I thought something was wrong with my TV screen the first time this occurred before it dawned on me that this is how Mack represents Tyler’s mind. Like the camera, it glitches when he recalls his mother: There are brief images, but time has marred them, and thus the film reflects that. It’s a clever way of conveying Tyler’s state of mind through the medium, but unfortunately, that’s about the cleverest thing in “Portraits From a Fire.”

Without giving too much away, the climax of “Portraits From a Fire” hinges on a revelation that feels like it belongs in a Lifetime movie, though perhaps this could have been ameliorated had the performances been better, and the blame for any performance issues could be laid at least partially at the feet of the script, with the story from Mack and Derek Vermillion and the screenplay from Manny Mahal. Koostachin in particular is saddled with poor dialogue about living with pain that reads like an early 2000s My Chemical Romance song—these aren’t things that most people could say out loud with a straight face. The clunky dialogue does the actors no favors, and in return they fail to sell the words they’re saying, though given different material it’s not hard to believe that they could all turn in strong performances. 

“Portraits From a Fire” wears its sentimentality on its sleeve, but unfortunately fails to earn any of the emotion it wants to. Yet through it all there is an underlying sweetness that makes it hard to actively dislike the movie, even if it’s not capital-G Good; plus, the final shot of the film gets a little meta and, as Tyler films Sammy for his latest movie, Mack and the rest of the crew appear behind him to celebrate. You can’t hate “Portraits From a Fire.” You just can’t love it, either.

“Portraits From a Fire” Trailer

“Portraits From a Fire” played as part of the 2022 Atlanta Film Festival.

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