It’s no surprise that a filmmaker’s best work is often their most personal. The coming-of-age film, an over-saturated genre with more misfires than successes, works best when the creator not only draws from their own experiences, but leaves it all on the screen. That’s abundantly clear in “Beans,” Tracey Deer’s raw and affecting drama based on her experience surviving the horrific 1990 Oka Crisis. A dark and embarrassing chapter in Canadian history, the Oka Crisis was a 78-day armed standoff between Mohawk protestors and the Canadian government. In “Beans,” Deer has transformed the most painful experience of her life into a vital human story, while holding an unflinching mirror up to the racism and discrimination indigenous communities still face to this day.
Named for its plucky protagonist, “Beans” lays bare the pain and trauma of that reality through the eyes of a 12-year-old Mohawk girl. Cheerful and ambitious, the film follows Beans as she struggles to find herself while navigating community, discrimination, and a revolution. Though the beats of her self-reckoning are understandably familiar, the setting and point of view is wholly original. It’s safe to say there’s never been a film quite like “Beans.”
The movie opens on Beans’ (Kiawentiio) shining face proclaiming her Mohawk name to a white administrator of the elite private school where she is interviewing, which bears the comically white name Queen Heights Academy. Over a modest family dinner, her parents gently squabble over the merits of sending their daughter to a majority white school. When her father (Joel Montgrand) asks if she wants to go to school with a bunch of white folks, she hesitates briefly, the first sign that her responsible elder child image may be more constructed than it seems.
Forgoing simplicity, Deer avoids narrowly placing each parent on either side of Beans’ identity journey. Her mother (Rainbow Dickerson) may have ambitious dreams for her daughter, but she displays gritty tenacity and maternal understanding where it counts. With more than a few other characters influencing Beans, her father fades into the background, solidly grounding the film in a woman-centered narrative.
When a local golf course threatens to build on sacred Mohawk burial grounds, a peaceful protest escalates as the community mobilizes to protect its land. As Beans and her adorable kid sister Ruby (Violah Beauvais) excitedly ferry discarded furniture to makeshift barricades, Beans surveys the reality of what they’re up against as she looks across at armed policemen with sandbags and barbed-wire fencing. Deer keeps the precise details of the stand-off a bit murky, instead focusing on the characters’ experience of the events. As a 12-year-old, Beans may not fully grasp the reasoning behind the violence, and she doesn’t need to. Similarly, the audience absorbs her experience through dwindling food options and outdoor play interrupted by cops camped in the backyard.
It’s not all sunshine and roses within the ever-tightening confines of her community. Besides the mounting unrest, her childlike naiveté is also dashed by a group of menacing older kids, led by tough girl April (Paulina Alexis). As the violence intensifies, Beans seeks out April’s guidance to help her toughen up. April’s methods are crude, as her thwacks with a stick leave raised red marks on the young girl’s thighs, but the effect is undeniable. When she is threatened, Beans doesn’t hesitate to fight back. While her growing combativeness and righteous anger can get her into trouble, the fighting spirit she sought to summon ultimately saves her when it counts.
The young actor Kiawentiio is an exciting discovery. She’s a formidable force, embodying Beans with a blend of youthful innocence, beyond-her-years wisdom, and forceful determination. She’s natural and charismatic onscreen, which is sadly not true of every performer in the film. It’s an understandable flaw; a dearth of roles for indigenous actors has produced fewer opportunities for sharpening their skills. Still, it can hinder certain dramatic scenes that require a more nuanced touch.
Deer intercuts the narrative beats with actual news reels from that period. It’s a powerful use of archival footage that brings the painful reality of the events into sharp focus. It’s difficult to process the mobs of angry white Canadians, shouting about lost jobs while using racial slurs and advocating violence. The grainy VHS footage tells us this is 1990, but anyone paying attention knows the sentiments prevail today.
The parallel makes Deer’s story all the more heartbreaking, and illustrates the awesome power of cinematic storytelling. Behind every angry mob we see on the news today sits a child of color, full of their own hopes and dreams and joys, confronted daily with a sea of inexplicable rage and hate. If rendering their stories artfully through a camera lens opens just one mind, then “Beans” is already an unmitigated triumph.
“Beans” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 13. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.