It wouldn’t be a film festival without the requisite, ham-fisted coming-of-age drama, and for the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, Tracey Deer’s Beans comfortably fits the bill. Set during the 1990 Mohawk uprising in Quebec, the film follows an Indigenous twelve-year-old girl nicknamed Beans (Kiawentiio Tarbell) who is caught in the middle of a conflict between descendants of white settlers and the First Nations people who are protesting their sacred land being bulldozed for a golf course. As the uprising turns violent, Beans is forced to navigate her dangerous newfound reality with her father on the front lines, while simultaneously getting caught up with a new group of friends, forcing her to grow up all too quickly.
Despite its timely subject matter, the coming-of-age story at the core of Beans feels distinctly too familiar, relying on tired tropes of adolescent rites of passage set against a revolutionary backdrop. And while there are parallels between the Indigenous uprisings in Quebec in 1990 and current anti-fascist actions happening around the world — the crisis at Standing Rock is an obvious comparison, but the film’s spiritual center easily extends to include Black Lives Matter protests, among others movements — Beans is often marred by an anemic script, amateur performances, and Deer’s awkward sense of pacing. The film even bungles its attempts to establish rapport between characters early on by relying on hyperbolic laughter to punctuate even the most mundane actions, an ungainly attempt to establish contrast with the vile displays of racism and violence that they will all face by the end. Unfortunately, these make very little impact because of Deer’s use of news footage from the time, the harrowing immediacy of which outshines the comparatively stiff reenactments.
Beans certainly has its heart in the right place, offering a fly-on-the-wall look at Native struggles in the face of institutional colonialism, but it displays neither the polish nor the dramatic bonafides to pull off such a serious topic. Even more egregious, Deer fails to make her characters either charming or memorable, a fatal error for a coming-of-age narrative attempting to use a child’s point of view to guide audiences through a historical event. The results are oddly listless and dramatically inert, leaving the unfortunate impression that the Mohawk uprising and its enduring legacy deserve a film that offers more than good intentions.
Published as part of TIFF 2020 — Dispatch 6.