Something special happens for a director or writer when they can probe deep memories into a compelling story, and the audience who has their eyes opened to an event or perspective we haven't seen before. Both of these are at the heart of director Tracey Deer's first film Beans, setting an appropriate tone as the first film chosen to open the Athena Film Festival.
Inspired by her own childhood, writer-director Tracey Deer mends the gap between a traditional coming-of-age tale against the backdrop of a historical event. In the summer of 1990, twelve year old Tekehentahkhwa's (Kiawentiio) adolescence unfolds with complicated friendships, standing up to oppression, and family dynamics against the backdrop of the Oka Crisis - a 78 day standoff of Mohawk people protecting their sacred burial grounds from overturning into a golf course by the White Quebec population.
Through Beans, the audience is taken through the familiar territory of adolescence as well as the terrifyingly frontlines of this under-regarded moment in Canadian history. She’s on the cusp of entering a prestigious white-led school for young girls – a decision that she feels called to fill by her independent-driven and courageous mother. We see her in the beginning wide-eyed and innocent; enjoying the play time she gets to spend with her younger sister and wary of disappointing her parents. Like most pre-teens who eventually learn to forge their own path, especially one away from their parents, her mature awakening begins with befriending a group of older rebellious teenagers she tries to fit in with by learning to fight, curse, and dress provocatively and show the deep-seeded anger that comes with her family being oppressed.
Beans, portrayed by Kiawenti:io Tarbell, gives an empathetic performance. She’s able to evolve the character’s sweetness into the unbridled frustration and pain that comes from the events surrounding her. The ensemble itself is more of a female-driven narrative as well – with her mother (Rainbow Dickerson), sister (Violah Beauvais), and her friend April (Paulina Jewel Alexis) are with her on the journey as they try to find refuge away from the violent protests they’re surrounded with.
To balance the familiarity of Beans adolescence with the Oka crisis, Deer interjects the drama with real news programs. Unlike some biopics that struggle to mesh the live action story with historical context, Deer connects the two by mirroring the protests through the characters' journeys. As the Mohawk people protect their land from Quebec police, the RCMP and the Canadian Army, Beans and her family realistically encounter the frontlines at every turn. The mix of both tangibly creates more general tension around both plots and drives each other forward, and lets Beans claim her heritage on her own terms.
To move from an idea to pre-production and (hopefully) a theatrical release, film debuts are often a deeply personal experience from the filmmaker that needs to be told. Similar to director Haroula Rose's debut Once Upon A River, young adult films centering on indigenous and native experiences is a burgeoning genre that's ripe for stories we haven't seen featured in cinema before. Deer’s entry balances the vulnerable touch of her own perspective that the audience can delve into and come away with a wider appreciation of the world at large.