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Despite its Halloween-redolent title, Rhymes for Young Ghouls is instead a 1970s-set Canadian drama concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of a fictional reservation coping with hard times and a repressive government decree that every child under the age 16 must attend a residential school. Tinged with magical realism, Jeff Barnaby‘s debut feature is impressive for its atmospheric evocation of its little-seen milieu and boasts a terrific performance by Devery Jacobs in the central role.
The talented young performer plays 15-year-old Aila, the “weed princess” of the Red Crow Mi’gMaq reservation who, in cahoots with her Uncle Burner (Brandon Oakes) uses her drug-dealing gains to pay the “truancy tax” enabling her to escape the clutches of the forbidding school run by the oppressive Indian agent, Popper (Mark Antony Krupa).
But the indomitable teenager, whose mother (Roseanne Supernault) killed herself years earlier after the death of Alia’s younger brother, finds herself at a crossroads when her money is stolen and her father Joseph (Glen Gould) returns home after serving seven years in prison. He and the villainous Popper soon find themselves at desperate odds, with Aila resolving to take matters into her own hands and exact vengeance on her tormentor.
Narrated by its young protagonist, the film boasts atmosphere to spare, conveying the hard-living, hard-drinking lifestyle of the reservation’s inhabitants with astringent bleakness. Although a little too awkwardly infused with supernatural elements—Aila’s ghoulish mother returns from the dead to relate an allegorical fairy tale, rendered in crude animation, to her daughter—and occasionally rambling to the point of near incoherence, Barnaby’s screenplay effectively blends menace and humor. The latter is exemplified by such lines as the frustrated Aila’s telling a couple of her buffoonish customers that “you two are the dumbest Indians since Bugs Bunny put on a headdress.”
Dealing with an unfortunate period in its country’s history with darkly imaginative flair, Rhymes for Young Ghouls is a truly offbeat and original drama that deserves greater exposure than it’s likely to receive with its limited theatrical release.
Production: Prospect Films, Canadian Film Centre
Cast: Devery Jacobs, Roseanne Supernault, Mark Antony Krupa, Glen Gould, Brandon Oakes, Arthur Holden, Katie Nolan
Director/screenwriter: Jeff Barnaby
Producers: John Christou, Aisling Chin-Yee
Director of photography: Michel St. Martin
Production designer: Elisabeth Williams
Editor: Jeff Barnaby
Costume designer: Anie Fisette
Composers: Jeff Barnaby, Joe Barrucco
Casting: Rosina Bucci, Rene Haynes, Vera Miller
Rated R, 86 min.
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