Working as both a necessary history lesson as well as standing alone as a startling work of storytelling, Beans, directed by Tracey Deer, is a film that will stick to you like glue. Immersive and painful to watch without ever floundering into exploitative tear jerking, it’s a work of such profound immediacy and force reckoning that, if you’re not well versed in certain areas of history, it might be shocking to learn that the real events to this story didn’t happen recently. So strong is the urgency to the picture, so caustic its spotlight on just a few of the many wrongs white people have committed against Native Americans, that to learn that it happened 30 years ago isn’t shocking so much in that it happened, but, naively, in that we’re still seeing so many of the same to this day.
Forced to grow up quicker than she should, Beans, a twelve year old girl, was only worried about getting into a good school and making sure the principal knew how to pronounce her real name. However, when a demonstration turns to violence, she must bear witness to the discord and turbulence during the Oka Crisis, the Indigenous uprising between a group of Mohawk people and the town of Oka that split Quebec and Canada apart during a tense standoff during the summer of 1990.
The violence, while tame in terms of actual bloodshed, is chilling because we’re witnessing it from the point of view of children. To a certain degree adults are more accustomed to violence, even if they haven’t bore witness to it themselves and, at the very least, are disillusioned to the point where they can face it with clarity. When that violence is seen through the perspective of children, especially when it is a confrontation with racially charged hostility, it makes horrifying events even greater still. In their eyes, it’s a war movie or a scene from a horror film, an unfathomable nightmare; we should all see it for the obvious tragedy it is on a human level if we possess any base level of morality, but for children, these ideas and these understandings are shocking realities.
Beans has its moments of wholesomeness, but even those scenes of relative charm are undercut by the sadness seeping through every crack. Fruit Loops build trust and friendship between kids and teens – but we are still witnessing them lose innocence in a cruel world, as these snacks are ones that were smuggled from a white owned store. The levity is universal though – such as when Beans shocks herself as she swears for the first time (I too practiced swearing in front of a mirror with shocking exuberance). The random acts of intimidation, the uneven footing of a burgeoning friendship between two girls who are on the surface very different, and the eventual protectiveness they feel for one another are elements that give the film its unexpected but very necessary heart. Beans isn’t an easy film, it is meant to disgust, enrage and hopefully incite a new level of understanding. It’s a very specific, historically relevant backdrop, making the small, universal moments of burgeoning friendship and the hardships of being a twelve year old girl hit with all the more impact.
The performances are solid and there’s a spitfire charisma to our leading lady, with Kiawentiio delivering a confident turn as a young girl trying to act older in order to gain some level of control. But it’s Rainbow Dickerson, however, that truly impresses as Beans’ mother, Lily, as she stands up to the increasingly daunting odds facing her down.
Dickerson and director Deer are cause for the most enraging and gripping sequences of the film. Driving across the barricaded bridge to get to a neutral spot for the elders, women and children during the standoff following a negotiated deal between the Mohawk and the police officials, the Mohawk members are targeted by local townspeople whose ignorance and bigotry lead them to throwing rocks at the cars. Dickerson conveys the levels of anger and righteous panic as she bellows at her children to duck down, the fierce protection over her two daughters and her rightful fear at having to face down the pack of racists so palpable that everything becomes difficult to watch. Deer captures this sequence with a piercing eye, shooting it as if she were filming an action-thriller – close ups of the deranged faces of those pelting the rocks at children cut against Dickerson’s determined fearful face. She perseveres because she has to, and the horror that pulses through the scene due to Deer’s brilliant work here is due to how man-made this horror truly is.
Beans is an imperfect but important film, one marred with a subplot of Beans and a boy who tries to take advantage of her as she acts out, going so far beyond who we believe the character to be makes that the story goes backward and starts to undo what to that point had only been forward momentum. That said, it’s riveting and assured work. Deer, along with her fellow screenwriter Meredith Vuchnich, have molded a story that, due to its historical relevance and deep emotional pull, is timeless. With this only being her first feature length film, Deer is a director to celebrate and watch out for.