An armed standoff, men at barricades shout and point semi-automatic weapons. Mohawk Indians scream profanities at Quebecoise, who scream back, spit and hurl rocks, all while smirking Canadian police stand by and do nothing.
What in the name of Ryan Reynolds and Celine, Shatner, Alannis and Drake is going on here?
“Beans” is a jaw-dropping re-evaluation of “nice Canadians,” a docudrama set against the 1990 Oka Crisis, which erupted when a Quebec town decided to build a golf course on Mohawk land, which would entail bulldozing a Mohawk “First Nation” cemetery. The Mohawk occupied the land, and a bloody “siege” ensued, tearing at the fragile “harmony” of Chateauguay, Oka and the Mohawk reserves of Akwesasne, Kanesatake and Kahnawake.
Director and co-writer Tracey Deer shifts from documentaries (“Mohawk Girls”) to features with this unblinking, fictionalized account — complete with inflamed news footage of the crisis — of an event she lived through. A tweenage girl sees the ugliness of not just her racist neighbors, but of her own people in this crisis as it escalates into violence.
Screen newcomer Kiawentiio dazzles as the title character. Her Mohawk name is Tekehentahkhwa, but when we meet her she’s doing what she’s always done. She tells the admissions lady at Queen Heights Academy that “Everybody just calls me ‘Beans.'”
Her executive-assistant mother (Rainbow Dickerson) is raising Beans and little sister Ruby (Violah Beauvais) to aim high, and Beans is determined to get into a good school so she can become a doctor or lawyer.
Her Dad (Joel Montgrand) isn’t keen on the private school idea. But they’re middle class and aspirational. If only Beans would “toughen up,” this decision wouldn’t be so hard.
Her crash course in doing just that begins the moment they see Dad taking his rifle to the barricades at Mercier Bridge. A land dispute going back generations comes to a head with callous plans to build a golf course. The Mohawk rally, take over the bridge and occupy the land in question.
Pregnant Mom is unsettled to hear profane tirades of the other armed Mohawk men as they disrupt a lot of people’s morning commute. The TV news captures bulldozers plowing police cars out of the way as more First Nation protestors push their way in.
“You make sure this doesn’t turn into cowboys and Indians,” Mom warns her husband.
Beans, isolated and camping out in a site that’s cut-off from outside help or food, finds herself growing up fast, and toughening up faster. She falls in with foul-mouthed April (Paulina Alexis) and gets sweet on her militant teen brother (D’Pharaoh Woon-a-Tai). They start out bullies, but become Beans’ role models.
“I wanna be tough, like you.”
April punches and whips Beans, because “If you can’t feel pain, no one can hurt you.” She challenges her — “You Mohawk or what?”
And before Beans knows it, the “little girl” is dropping F-bombs with the best of them, engaging in dangerous pranks against the “frogs” (French speakers) in uniform. The pranks turn serious, and the town — which they try to sneak into for supplies — turns on them in a flash, refusing to “serve your kind.”
Deer doesn’t flinch from showing the ugliness, the trigger-happy machismo that infects rednecks of every race. The intercut news footage doesn’t subtitle the tirades uttered in French. We and Beans and her family get the idea. Mock racist war whoops require no translation.
And violent words lead to violent actions, which we see play out in a horrific ride “home” through a rain of rocks thrown by their “neighbors.”
Deer skillfully weaves in news footage to underscore the “crisis” that they’re all living through, and the tropes of tween/teen “coming of age” stories to show another side of Beans’ “education.” Drunken parties, “two minutes in heaven,” sexual dares and rage all pile onto a kid who lashes out and gives us a taste of “You’ve become as bad as they are” in her confusion and turmoil.
Deer has made a richly-detailed debut feature about an ugly piece of Canadian history, and it’s to her credit that she lets young heroine see the escalation from both sides, and lets the viewer see what this does to her.
For non-Canadians, the explosions and riots, when they come, are all the more shocking. Maybe we don’t remember, and this certainly doesn’t fit “our” stereotype of a culture many of us idealize in thinking of how divided our own is.
Yeah, this happened, it happened in Canada. And no, it wasn’t that long ago.
Rating: unrated, violence, slurs, profanity
Cast: Kiawentiio, Rainbow Dickerson, Violah Beauvais, Joel Montgrand, Paulina Alexis and D’Pharaoh Woon-a-Tai.
Credits: scripted by Tracey Deer and Meredith Vuchnich. A Sphere Media release.
Running time: 1:31