Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"If they sometimes have trouble moving seamlessly between the smaller dramas of childhood and the bigger picture of the protests, each element of the film carries resonance in its own right."

Writer/director Tracey Deer draws on her own formative experience of Quebec's Oka Crisis - a siege-like armed stand-off between the Mohawk Nation of Kanesatake and Kahnawake sparked by plans to build a golf course on burial grounds - as the backbone of this sweet if uneven coming-age drama.

Beans (Kiawentiio)  is an appropriate nickname for 12-year-old Tekehentahkhwa, as she's pretty much full of them. She's a good kid, almost to a fault, with even her dad (Joel Montgrand) suggesting, "You need to toughen up". Family life with her younger sister Ruby (Violah Beauvais) is largely what you would expect, although there is some minor family tension around Beans' hopes of getting into a posh school, something pushed by pregnant mum Lily (Rainbow Dickerson) even if her dad's not so sure.

These micro-issues on the home front begin to widen after the community comes into conflict with the largely white Quebecois community of Oka over plans for that golf club. Deer uses actual footage from the crisis at points in this narrative, which though it underscores the reality of the situation on the ground for those who lived through it, doesn't always sit easily within the narrative she is creating. Against this backdrop, Beans is also in a sort of personal stand-off between childhood and teenagehood, and when she enters into a tentative friendship with the older and much tougher April (Paulina Alexis) it's very much a case of Sandra Dee-style sweet meets older kid street. The casting here is pretty much perfect, with Kiawentiio and Alexis sparking off one another as Beans initial fear and April's tough exterior begin to give way to friendship.

Deer and her co-writer Meredith Vuchnich give a real sense of the longing that can be involved as children begin to test their boundaries - something they show can even come as a surprise to kids themselves in a lovely scene where Beans shocks herself by swearing - and they also take time to pay attention to April's life and home challenges, without labouring the point. The writers present a nuanced view of the situation, showing how racism can lead to mob mentality and how it can become poisonous down the generations. By offering a child's eye view in the film's more violent moments, they are able to emphasise just how frightening these situations can be. The pair also use the character of Lily to help explore these issues, as she warns her husband not to turn the situation into "cowboys and Indians" and reacts with horror when Beans decides to try out a racial epithet of her own. The film also has a strong feminist streak - with women generally seen to have a much more nuanced view and better grasp of the situation than the men.

If Deer sometimes has trouble moving seamlessly between the smaller dramas of childhood and the bigger picture of the protests, each element of the film carries resonance in its own right and by sticking with Beans' perspective, we see how this sort of life experience can shape a youngster's reactions more generally.

The film played in the Generations Kplus section of Berlin and is likely to be well received by those around Beans' age and younger teens, who while no doubt coming for the emotional drama are likely to find themselves learning a fair amount about First Nations struggles in the face of institutionalised racism in a genuine historic context along the way.

Reviewed on: 09 Mar 2021
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Twelve-year-old Beans is on the edge: torn between innocent childhood and reckless adolescence; forced to grow up fast and become the tough Mohawk warrior she needs to be during the Oka Crisis, the turbulent Indigenous uprising that tore Quebec and Canada apart for 78 tense days in the summer of 1990.


BIFF 2021

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