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Powder Heads

1980, David Ferry, Catherine Mary Stewart, William Samples, Gordon Marriott, Don Goodspeed, J.C. Roberts. Directed by John Anderson and Michael French (Great Bear).

Released the same year as similar teen shenanigans films Hog Wild and Pinball Summer, the Edmonton-lensed Powder Heads was the first of many Anglophone Canadian comedies to try to hit the slopes with frat humour inspired by the recent hit Animal House. Featuring only the faintest whiff of storyline and comedy routines that never get past the bunny hill, this forgotten Canadian independent effort nevertheless features early performances by several notable Canuck stars.

Unlike Ski School, Canada's most well-known attempt to wring laughs out of ski bum antics, Powder Heads breezy tone can be chalked up to its impressive, slow motion stunt ski sequences Writer/director Michael French appears only to have concocted his film around these scenes--possibly stock shots or footage abandoned by another production--that take up at least a quarter of the 80-minute runtime.

Powder Heads (slang for hardcore skiers, a brief prologue explains) starts snowballing when scruffy skiing enthusiast Striker (David Ferry) spontaneously quits his bus driving job, abandoning his passengers mid-route, and heads off to pick up his fun loving pals Belinda (Catherine Mary Stewart), Pork Chop (Gordon Marriott) and Joey (Don Goodspeed). With a bus full of liquor, beer and the occasional joint, the three must avoid Strikers boss (William Samples), an easily tricked police officer (Jean-Pierre Fournier) and Belindas furious dad (J.C. Roberts) as they hoot and holler all the way to Marmot Basin ski resort in Alberta's Jasper National Park.

After they get a few runs in and, in Strikers case, charm the ladies with tales of athletic prowess, its off to another ski paradise--Sun Valley, Idaho--for more partying. At a disco bar, Porkchop finds love while Strikers wild and crazy shtick angers a local skiing champion who challenges all four of them to a race with the bus, their only way back to Canada, on the line.

In any other movie, Strikers shlubs would triumph over the odds in a clichéd final reel, but perhaps because French assumes viewers only care about the ski footage, Powder Heads eschews a conventional ending. In the climactic race, characters' outfits are not even established so that viewers might be able to identify them as they head down the hill, and no finish line is seen to be crossed--instead, a narrator describes the outcomes and humorous futures of the characters over freeze frames, noting that Striker and the others were beaten by their rivals. And there's no word on how they managed to get home.

If the film fails at providing a satisfying conclusion, then it also fails in much of the purported comedy sequences. Although Ferry has since logged an impressive career as a supporting actor in Canadian television and film, he's simply over his head here, coasting on pure charisma as he tries to do something with dire material, like trying to convince the police that theyre actually born-again Christians on a revival tour or having drunken conversations with a mannequin bust. This was Edmonton-born Stewarts second film, after Cannon's sci-fi cult musical like The Apple, before she landed some Hollywood roles in genre fare including Weekend at Bernie's and Night of the Comet, but she barely has any dialogue. Likewise Gordon Marriott, in the films designated Belushi role, appears to have been cast solely for his goofy looks that may have brought to mind Harvey Atkin.

And yet there's a kind of underdog fun and lively pace to the proceedings. Hog Wild and Pinball Summer were time-tested coming of age stories sprinkled with a little sex, but the nudity-free Powder Heads doesn't take itself seriously even as disposable drive-in fare, adopting a wholly anarchic tone in its approach to humour that was unseen at the time in Canadian comedies. The go-for-broke approach was later resurrected in aggressively goofy Canadian teen films like Oddballs and Rebel High, but with only marginally better results.

It may not be very notable, but at least this obvious tax shelter production has a strong Canadian flavour. Set in the same place where it was largely shot, Powder Heads proudly waves the maple leaf with many local references, including Canada toques, thick accents, picturesque winter scenes and specific locations that were rarely on obvious display on screen at the time. It all adds up to a frosty--if vaguely unsatisfying--treat for fans of obscure Canadian films.

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