'Beans': Film Review | TIFF 2020

Courtesy of Tiff

Kiawentiio (left) and Rainbow Dickerson in 'Beans'

An affecting personal spin on recent history.

A Mohawk tween learns painful lessons about her people's place in Canadian society in Tracey Deer's inspired-by-true-events drama.

A coming-of-age drama set against true events that roiled Quebec in 1990, Beans is a story of awakening and identity for its title character. She's a smart and high-spirited resident of the Mohawk reserve Kahnawà:ke, and her single-syllable nickname comes in especially handy in the opening scene: The principal of the private high school she wants to attend stumbles repeatedly, and unapologetically, over the girl's given name, Tekahentahkhwa. But more extreme indignities await Beans and her family as the Oka Crisis, a land dispute between Mohawk protesters and Canadian law enforcement, escalates.

The combination of actual news footage and fictional events is not always seamless in Beans, the first narrative feature to focus on the Oka Crisis, and the story's logistics, geography and timeline could be clearer. Even so, Mohawk director Tracey Deer, who lived through the violent 78-day conflict as a 12-year-old, has made a film that's eye-opening. Beyond her firsthand understanding of indigenous people's struggles, she's keenly attuned to girlhood growing pains — well captured in the expressive and engaging performance by Kiawentiio, leading a strong cast. The drama ends on a note of hard-won hope, its depictions of racist aggression, both real and re-enacted, shining a harsh light on the ugliness of mob-mentality bullying.

At the center of the dispute was the proposed expansion of a golf course in Oka, near Montreal, a development plan that would have leveled Mohawk woodland and a burial ground. As the movie opens, the demonstration against the project has been ongoing for weeks. Seeing their cousin (Brittany Leborgne) interviewed on TV, Beans, younger sister Ruby (Violah Beauvais) and mom Lily (Rainbow Dickerson), heavily pregnant with her third child, are inspired to make the short road trip to the protesters' campsite. They arrive with food and placards, in a celebratory summer spirit of solidarity, only to flee in terror when a gunfight erupts.

That turn of events, including the news that a police officer is dead, is explained on the car radio as Lily drives her girls back home. Deer and co-writer Meredith Vuchnich rely on news footage and other documentary material throughout the film, a device that works to varying degrees. As tensions accelerate, there's a good deal of back-and-forth within the designated Mohawk territories and other areas around Montreal, and the shifts in setting can be disorienting.

The importance of the Mercier Bridge is made clear, though, even if viewers don't understand precisely which locations it connects. Beans' father (Joel Montgrand) is among the Mohawk men who set up a blockade on the bridge to heighten the urgency of the protest. There's a police barricade too, and frustrated, sometimes violently angry commuters and other locals. "You make damn sure this doesn't turn into cowboys and Indians," Lily warns her husband after witnessing a belligerent display by one of his comrades. Though she works in the city as an executive assistant and is pushing Beans to attend school there, her understanding of racial politics is at least as acute as that of her seemingly more militant spouse, her strength and calming influence in the midst of rising chaos admirable and unwavering.

The emotional fallout of the political standoff grows more intense as the insults and physical threats mount. Many white residents speak contemptuously of the Mohawk protesters as expendable terrorists. When the Quebec premier calls in the national army and its tanks, his rationale is that "we have to assume the protection of our people" — members of the First Nations evidently not qualifying as "our people."

And when Lily, her daughters and a few of their friends are refused service in a grocery store, a group of white customers applaud their expulsion, calling them "savages." In the most traumatizing event for Lily, Beans and Ruby, they become sitting ducks while seeking safety: As they're driving in a caravan of women, children and elders who are heading to temporary shelter off the reserve, their car is pelted with rocks by locals lined up on the roadside like a zombie horde.

Through all this, Beans is increasingly drawn to a group of rowdy older kids led by April (Paulina Alexis) and her brother, Hank (D’Pharaoh McKay Woon-A-Tai). "I want to be tough like you," she tells April. That's stating the obvious; in Kiawentiio's graceful performance, Beans' actions and glances are alive with the yearning to break free of her good-girl identity and separate from the protective cocoon of family.

April runs hot and cold toward Beans, sometimes cruelly rejecting her, sometimes taking her under her wing. Through the reversals, Alexis gradually brings her character's wounded spirit to the toughened surface. When April teaches Beans to fight dirty, she assures her that "if you can't feel pain, then no one can hurt you." Without belaboring the distressing issue, Deer makes it felt: A couple of pointed glances at April's alcoholic father (Jay Cardinal Villeneuve) demonstrate how abandoned she and Hank are. A single sentence of dialogue fills in the other part of the equation, the abuse.

Kiawentiio ably embodies that particular moment of innocence on the cusp of experience. In a sweetly comic moment, Beans faces herself in the dresser mirror, across a cheery lineup of stuffed animals, and practices swearing. As Beans begins to question whether her academic and career goals are truly her own or her mother's, and as she thrills at being accepted by the cool kids who disdain such goals, she acts out. After the cowardly offensive against her family, the rage she directs at a policeman feels a bit too movie-ish, but her tearful breakdown later is affecting, especially for the way she contains those emotions until she can release them in private. Her unwarranted attack on a girl she calls a "frog" (a slur for French Canadian) is horrifying, and one of the bravest elements of Deer and Vuchnich's story. The way Lily holds her daughter responsible for that cruelty plays out in a way that's nuanced and rings utterly true.

So does the film as a whole, its lapses in narrative flow notwithstanding. Shot in many of the actual locations where the 1990 events unfolded, Beans illuminates a chapter of recent history that's not widely known outside Quebec and still not entirely resolved. In the story of Tekahentahkhwa, aka Beans, Deer crystallizes the convulsive to-and-fro of growing up, and the potentially life-changing energy of standing up. "He wouldn’t listen," is how Beans describes a teen boy's would-be assault on her. The Mohawks might use similar words to sum up the disheartening and arrogant Canadian response when they stood up to protect their land.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Discovery)
Production company: EMAfilms
Cast: Kiawentiio, Rainbow Dickerson, Violah Beauvais, Paulina Alexis, D’Pharaoh McKay Woon-A-Tai, Joel Montgrand, Taio Gélinas, Brittany Leborgne, Kelly Beaudoin, Jay Cardinal Villeneuve, Dawn Ford, Ida Labillois-Montour, Caroline Gélinas, Angie Reid
Director: Tracey Deer
Screenwriters: Tracey Deer, Meredith Vuchnich
Story by Tracey Deer
Producer: Anne-Marie Gélinas
Executive producers: Meredith Vuchnich, Justine Whyte
Director of photography: Marie Davignon
Production designer: André Chamberland
Costume designer: Éric Poirier
Editor: Sophie Farkas Bolla
Music: Mario Sévigny
Casting: Maxime Giroux, Rene Haynes
Sales: WaZabi Films

91 minutes