Canada has famously been described as the ‘nice apartment above a drug den’ in reference to its less salubrious neighbouring country. Yet Tracey Deer’s powerful feature Beans demonstrates that maybe the nice apartment has the odd rotten floorboard and quite a few skeletons in its closets.
Beans (Kiawentiio) is the nickname of the film’s protagonist, the wonderfully named Tekahentahkhwa. She is a twelve-year-old Mohawk and her dream – or rather, her mother’s dream – is that she get into a predominantly white private school, the Queen Heights Academy, in 1990 Quebec. Deer quickly establishes Beans’s family as a tight-knit and loving one. Mum (Rainbow Dickerson) is heavily pregnant, dad (Joel Montgrand) is supportive of his daughter’s choices and both want what is best for her. She has an adorable kid sister, Ruby (Violah Beauvais) and the general vibe is one of warmth and readily unleashed hilarity.
All this is about to change, for Beans’s adolescent transition coincides with an event that would rock Canada, which was the Mohawk people’s protest at their sacred burial ground being demolished to make way for a golf course extension. Deer interlaces the action with actual newsreel footage that will come as a shock: whites hurling stones and abuse, ‘lynching’ effigies of Native Americans, enraged at the Mohawks’ defence of their land. This defining moment in Beans’s life coincides with her transformation from sweet child to empowered young woman.
Many of these scenes are charming: the angelic Beans staring in her bedroom mirror while trying out a few new swear words, heading to her scary neighbour April’s house for some fighting lessons or changing out of her kid’s clothes into something decidedly more teen-friendly once she’s outside the family home. April (Paulina Alexis) is all tough exterior with a heart of gold, whereas her brother is an oikish lout. The kids are left to their own devices in their ramshackle home for the mother is gone and the drunken dad is a monster. However, Deer also depicts how the community comes together to protect each other once roadblocks and barricades make simple chores such as grocery shopping a perilous activity.
Kiawentiio carries this film with aplomb. Her transition from innocent child to impassioned young adult via a brief sojourn in terrible-teen territory, is entirely believable, but so are all the performances. As April, Paulina Alexis also portrays many conflicting emotions and traits that are such a part of teenage life regardless of any extenuating circumstances, and her story is particularly moving.
More than anything, Deer depicts a country that is still riddled with centuries-long racism and whose peoples are struggling to live comfortably side by side. Yet despite the violence, the police indifference and the injustices wrought, the message of this film is hopeful and sees that reconciliation is possible as people come together to support the Mohawk protestors. The pride and resilience of the Mohawk nation is embodied in the persona of the wonderful Tekahentahkhwa, a fierce young woman who by the end of the film is no longer afraid to say her name.