[DCEFF] 'Beans' (2020) Film Review

Sydney Bollinger reviews Beans, a coming-of-age film written and directed by Tracey Deer. The film follows Mohawk preteen Beans during the summer of the Oka Crisis.

[DCEFF] 'Beans' (2020) Film Review
L to R: Kiawentiio as Tekehentahkhwa (Beans) and Rainbow Dickerson as Lily

by Sydney Bollinger

Director and writer Tracey Deer’s narrative debut Beans follows Mohawk preteen Tekehentahkhwa (Kiawentiio) — called “Beans” by friends and family —as she navigates the precarious space between childhood and adolescence during the summer of the Oka crisis. The film is inspired by Deer’s own experience living through the crisis while the same age as the titular character.

Deer approaches the film through the eyes of Beans, combining typical acts of adolescent rebellion — hanging out with the “wrong” crowd, sneaking out, and general teen angst — with the violence enacted upon the Mohawk people by the Canadian government and Oka community. Beans’s coming-of-age summer forces her to reckon with not just her identity as a child becoming an adult, but also her identity as a Mohawk woman in Canada, where her community off of the reservation sees her, her family, and her people as less than human.

The film soars due to both the superb acting and Deer’s flawless storytelling. By incorporating archival footage from the Oka crisis — including news reports and other documentary footage — Deer effectively crafts the setting without holding back the real-life horror of the situation. Additionally, she places all of the narrative through the eyes of Beans, who — upon seeing the sheer violence of the Oka community toward the Mohawk people — seeks out a friend in tough-girl April (Paulina Jewel Alexis). Through her friendship with Julia and encounters with the violent, racist Oka community Beans grows up fast, despite still being a child.

Kiawentiio is definitely a star to watch after her performance in this film. The young actress has a steadfast maturity in playing Beans, her emotional depth in each scene far more than some actors over twice her age. She’s able to show naivety and anger in a single breath, which is perfect for the role that she plays. Additionally, Rainbow Dickerson, who plays Beans’s mother Lily, steals scene after scene portraying the fiercely loving mom-in-crisis. Beans and Lily’s relationship is one of the highlights of the film, especially as it changes and grows due both to the crisis and Beans finding out who she is.

Deer doesn’t hold back the emotional, hard-to-watch moments, ensuring that the audience is incredibly aware of the blatant discrimination the Mohawk people face. In one scene, Lily drives Beans and her sister Ruby (Violah Beauvais) out of the city for protection. On their way out, the anti-Indigenous Oka community throws rocks at cars transporting Mohawk women and children. Beans and her sister crouch on the floorboards and try to shield themselves as Lily continues to drive. The inclusion of this scene — and others — underlines the true danger the Mohawk people faced during this crisis. Even still, Deer ensures that these scenes don’t just seem like relics of the past; her camerawork brings audiences into modernity and reminds us all that similar atrocities still happen today.

Beans is perhaps one of the best coming-of-age films of the past ten years. Even though the ending might feel tied up too neatly, the happy resolution is well-deserved, especially after the audience witnesses what Beans has to go through while coming to understand herself and her place in the world. Deer’s spirited narrative cements her as one of the great directors of today.

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