The classic Newfoundland novel Hold Fast, ranked by Quill & Quire as second only to Anne of Green Gables for Canadian children's books, will soon be a film starring Molly Parker, Andy Jones and soulful newcomer Avery Ash.
Fourteen-year-old Ash hails from the tiny coastal community of Hant's Harbour, on Newfoundland's Bay de Verde Peninsula, a tight-knit town not unlike the fishing outport that his character, Michael, calls home.
In the book, Michael is suddenly wrenched from everything he loves most when his parents are killed in a car wreck.
He and his little brother, Brent, are separated as the younger boy stays with their aunt and grandfather, while Michael heads to a larger city to live with his Aunt Ellen, played by Parker of NBC's The Firm, and Uncle Ted, played by Newfoundland actor Aiden Flynn.
Michael bonds in that troubled house with his cousin, Curtis, but soon begins to crack under the weight of his grief, taunts at school and his Uncle Ted's heavy hand. When those pressures build into a major blowup, Michael takes off with Curtis in tow to the woodlands that were once his refuge.
Their timeless quest for both freedom and belonging is set against the spectacular backdrop of Newfoundland's Gros Morne National Park and postcard-pretty fishing villages such as Bauline. It's an adventure film based on a story that still resonates almost 35 years after it was first published, Ash said during a brief break from filming.
"Michael, at the start of the movie, he's really quick to judge people. But at the end of the movie he learns that you can't really judge people by how they look or by how they act at first sight," he said.
"You definitely can learn from this book. Michael experiences being picked on by a big bully at school, and other children or kids can learn that it's not a good thing to do. It's another way to reach out about bullying."
He flashed a wide grin as he talked about the thrill of making his first feature film after playing parts in local theatre.
Ash and 12-year-old Douglas Sullivan of St. John's, who plays Curtis, were selected after months of auditions around the province.
It's the second time Parker has filmed in Newfoundland after her role 10 years ago with William Hurt and Andy Jones in the film adaptation of Newfoundland author Ed Riche's book Rare Birds. Her friendship and collaboration with Hold Fast co-producer and screenwriter Rosemary House brought her back to the Rock right after 10 months of filming the new TV series The Firm, based on John Grisham's best-selling novel.
"I really love Newfoundland. It's an incredibly special place and the people are amazing," she said from Toronto. "I've always just found it a very moving place and a very creative place."
Parker's character Aunt Ellen "is essentially a woman who's married to a very controlling man who has rage issues."
When headstrong Michael enters that volatile family mix, a battle of wills erupts that many teenagers will recognize, said House.
"The struggle for independence, to stand up for yourself, the struggle to understand your own place in the world, the whole idea about making friends, understanding what friendship is, and understanding the worth of other individuals as you're trying to come to terms with who you are yourself."
For Hold Fast author Kevin Major, it's a chance to see his Governor General's Award-winning novel reach a new generation.
He has quietly visited set locations since filming began last month as both a curious and delighted observer.
"It's very gratifying to think that a book that's almost 35 years old now is still on the go, still being read by people, still appreciated by people. I hope it speaks to the story, that it's a universal story."
Major distills the book's essence to "that fight, that belief, that holding on and holding fast to something (Michael) believes in. The values of outport Newfoundland are still important today and maybe even more important since a lot of the outports have been fading in recent years since the cod moratorium," in 1992.
"This is a whole new life," he said of the film. "And maybe it will reach a whole new group of people. I'm hoping that, anyway."
Hold Fast, produced by Rock Island Productions and Markham Street Films with funding from Telefilm Canada and the Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corp., is to be released to theatres in Canada and internationally next year.