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The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song

A Guyanese spoken-word poet and her enterprising son make music.

DIRECTED BY CHRISTY GARLAND

The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song isn’t the easiest sell. An observational documentary about the relationship between an alcoholic Guyanese poet in her seventies and her sweet son—a middle-class aspiring hustler who sells songbirds and manages cockfights on the side—it’s the sort of film one approaches with caution, fearful of the wrong turns it could take in its portrayal of sensitive matters like aging, poverty, and artistic inspiration. It’s both a relief and a delight that those issues turn out to be of only tangential interest to Canadian director Christy Garland, who wisely concentrates on her rich characters and lets the story’s allegorical dimension emerge organically from them.

Mary and her son Muscle make fine subjects for Garland’s study, revealing themselves in a number of moving conversations that seem to be captured on the fly. The film was inspired by Larry Frolick’s 2007 essay in The Walrus about Muscle’s entrepreneurial spirit, but there’s plenty here that feels fresh, mostly on account of mother and son’s poetic turns of phrase. Muscle’s chat with a prospective bird-buyer who comes from a similarly abusive background, for example, hinges on a heartbreaking moment when both men champion the elusive goal of “breaking the cycle,” a phrase they’ve obviously relied upon many times in the past.

There’s a slickness to Garland’s frequent inserts of caged birds, which sometimes seem out of place beside this emotionally direct material. It’s an overly figurative way of amplifying Muscle’s desire to transcend his surroundings, as well as Mary’s own plight, locked up in her son’s house lest she roam the streets risk another debilitating fall. If the metaphorical weight of that human-bird connection feels a bit much, at its heart this is still an honest, bruising film. It earns its redemptive title.

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