Directed by Tracy Deer | Written by Deer and Meredith Vuchnich | 92 min
For those who don’t know, or don’t remember, the eyes of Canadians in the summer of 1990 were on the Oka Crisis, otherwise known as The Kanesatake Resistance.
In the history of settler and indigenous relations, it was a flashpoint. Land the Mohawk people had spent literally centuries fighting for near Oka, west of Montreal, was being developed with the construction of town homes and the expansion of a golf course. People from Kanesatake, the Kahnawake, and Akwesasne Mohawks put up barricades on roads and bridges to stop the development. The cops moved in, and violence followed. A Sûreté du Québec officer was shot and killed. Local settlers marched. The army was called in.
Eventually, the development was stopped.
Tracy Deer has built her story around the events of that summer, which she herself lived through. We see it through the eyes of 12-year-old Tekahentahkhwa, who goes by Beans (Kiawentiio).
Beans is a good kid. She’s got a chance to go to a fancy private school, but the events of that summer hit hard. First hand she experiences the violence — her father (Joel Montgrand) is on the barricade while her mother, Lily (Rainbow Dickerson), is pregnant, taking care of Beans and her little sister, Ruby (Violah Beauvais).
What starts as a peaceful protest, the blockade a place to stand together as a community, quickly gets ugly. Beans wants to toughen up, to get to a place where she can’t be hurt by angry white people. She makes friends with an older girl, April (Paulina Alexis), her brother and friends — for better and frequently worse.
The film nails the coming-of-age element, and it’s crystal clear how the chaos around this family is more than enough to send Beans down a difficult path.
Kiawentiio is a terrific young actor, selling every emotional shift. This while Deer manages the tonal colours — leaning heavily on news and archival footage from Oka to establish time and place, and then later exploring the trouble the teens get up to, frequently in response to what’s happening around them, handled with a deft hand and terrific character work all around.
If some of the directorial choices feel a little raw and rough in some areas while also too neat in others, there’s every indication that Deer, an experienced documentary filmmaker, is finding an individual and effective voice as a feature filmmaker.
Where her film is most potent is in depicting the grotesque racism and the fear this family has to navigate in order to make it through a day. There’s a shot from within a car, with Lily, Beans, and Ruby screaming and crying as a crowd of white people throw rocks at the windows, the cops just standing and watching, that I won’t forget anytime soon.
Beans bears witness to teeth-grinding injustice — you’d have to be made of ice to not be infuriated, a bleak moment in our nation’s history so vividly and ably recreated.