Navigating childhood to adolescence is universally a challenge. “Beans,” the feature directorial debut of award-winning documentarian Tracey Deer (“Anne with an E,” “Mohawk Girls”), reveals how much more intense that process can be for a young indigenous girl.
The United States’ image of Canada is often one of racial and ethnic harmony. “Beans” shows that Canada has its own history of racism and xenophobia.
But the macro picture of the problem is not what matters in “Beans.” To communicate the impact of that racism and xenophobia, particularly as exemplified by the 1990 Oka Crisis in Quebec, Deer turns the camera on 12-year-old Tekehentahkwa, who goes by the name “Beans,” in lieu of the expected documentary route. In 1990, the Mohawk community came together for a 78-day standoff to fight a proposed golf course on their ancestral land.
What unfolds in “Beans” is how real-life people were affected by the incident. For Beans (played by Kiawentiio, “Rutherford Falls”), her younger sister Ruby (Violah Beauvais), and parents Lily (Rainbow Dickerson) and Kania’Tariio (Joel Montgrand), this crisis rocks their world. Typical coming-of-age stories focus on a loss of innocence; rarely do they explore the specific loss of racial and cultural innocence. What happens when young people of color discover that a dominant white culture does not love them the same as their white peers? That message feels even more egregious when those young people of color are fighting over land that belongs to their ancestors.
This is exactly the dilemma “Beans” addresses, but never in the preachy, Kumbaya manner to which we have become accustomed. The hurt and confusion leads Beans down a troubling path when she encounters young people a few years older than her who act on their rage. In contrast to Beans, her friend April (Paulina Alexis, “Reservation Dogs”) doesn’t come from a family that offers love and protection. Consequently, she has a wall up that Beans is determined to break through regardless of how much abuse April heaps on her. With April and her group — including her brother Hank (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, also from “Reservation Dogs”), who thrusts inappropriate attention on Beans — we see what a tightrope some young people walk between right and wrong.
At moments, it seems doubtful if Beans will survive without seriously damaging her future prospects. This is especially key since Beans is vying to attend the “prestigious” and predominantly white Queens Heights Academy. Her early naivete underscores that fact that, prior to the standoff, Beans had never even considered what hurdles life might put in her way solely because of her indigenous background.
To Deer’s credit, she does not back down from the cruelty that older, white people demonstrate toward the community, including children. (Archival footage of the real incident more than backs up Deer’s portrayal.) Although Beans may not be a real person, we know that she is also not wholly fictional. These events took place, and we feel the toll they take not only on Beans but also her whole family and community.
As the crisis unfolds and deepens, we feel Beans’ frustration as well as Ruby’s fear. As steely as their pregnant mother Lily appears to be throughout much of the film, even she has a breaking point in the face of such unwarranted cruelty. And that cruelty includes not just harsh words, but also violent outbursts with the intention to harm. Food insecurity also becomes an issue as the standoff continues. The standoff illustrates the very real sacrifices and compromises people of color consistently make when they dare to assert their humanity.
“Beans” is not a perfect film. It’s initially slow getting into its groove, and at times, Marie Davignon’s camera reveals uncertainty in the narrative. Visually, the integration of the archival news footage doesn’t always gibe with the newly-shot footage. But those relatively minor flaws in no way detract from the film’s power and relevance. Lead actor Kiawentiio, in particular, makes adept choices in conveying Beans’s innocence as well as her potential to be corrupted.
For cinema to convey a wide range of experiences, a wide range of people must have access to tell their own stories. And while the point may be missed in the throes of the critical race theory controversy in the U.S., ugliness and bigotry are very much a part of the human story. Deer, a rare filmmaker of Mohawk descent, portrays in “Beans” the hope and love that help people thrive in the face of such hatred.
“Beans” opens in US theaters and on demand Nov. 5.