Credit: Game Theory Films
Before We Vanish by Conor Truax Featured Film

Seagrass — Meredith Hama-Brown

February 28, 2024

In Ghosts of My Life, the late writer Mark Fisher writes, about hauntology: “Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to have it resold to them forever.” This notion is particularly salient in our time of fractious division, when antipathy between diverging groups continues to swell. There is a segment of the populace that is determined to meekly make amends with the heredity of colonial subjugation — to acknowledge, evaluate, and ultimately dismantle its architecture — a second who continues to subvert these efforts by means of passive apathy or jocose prodding — convinced that a reverb of old racist jokes are in some way subversive — and a third group that doesn’t care either way, delighted to move within the unperturbed continuation of an amnesiac history. In her debut feature, writer-director Meredith Hama-Brown invigorates the first, while challenging the latter two in a loose domestic drama, rife with hauntings of our personal and collective past. 

Ally Maki leads the film as Judith, a Japanese-Canadian whose family immigrated to Canada in the early 20th century, and who were subsequently interned in British Columbian labor camps during, and beyond, the Second World War. It’s 1994, Judith’s mother has recently passed away, and she has come to the realization, and regret, that she has gone her whole life without giving the necessary attention to or learning about her family’s heritage, so that she might carry it forth to her own two daughters, the pre-teen Stephanie (Nyha Huang Breitkreuz) and the younger Emmy (Remy Marthaller). She shares her children with Steve (Luke Roberts), a loving, if-absent minded, father who is stifled by his own condition of masculine insecurity and, being a white man from a wealthy Canadian family, is devoid of the same cultural lineage that Judith yearns for. 

The film begins with the couple on a ferry as they approach a coastal island that is perhaps Tofino, a Canadian surfing paradise. The family is staying at a quaint though unadorned cabin in an expansive resort complex. Soon after their arrival, it’s revealed that the center is a retreat meant to counsel couples in search of a deepened or enlivened connection. While the parents participate in group therapy sessions, rife with dramaturgical acts of catharsis, confession circles, and seat cushions, the children play in the summer sun, swimming in a shallow pool and wading on a thinning intertidal beach. At the end of the beach there is a gaunt grotto, and Emmy is told that should she spend too long inside of it, thinking of someone that is no longer of this world, she will begin to see their ghost. Emmy relays her folkloric anxiety to her mother and sister, who both assuage her concern, each equally unconvinced of their assertion as the film goes on. 

Hama-Brown’s cinematographer (and long-term partner) Norm Li — DP of the cult classic horror film Beyond the Black Rainbow — casts ghostly, perspectival intrusions through the film, via a levitating, meandering presence that journeys from the grotto to the children. The most obvious explanation for this presence is the ghost of Judith’s mother, although throughout the film, it becomes increasingly plausible that it could be any of the Japanese-Canadians shorn from the collective memory of Canadian culture by the harsh and unreflective attitudes of the architects of organized oppression, whose violence allowed them to be self-appointed as the arbiters of historical truth. If anything is made clear by the environment at the resort, it’s that some of the foundational attitudes toward Asian-Canadians are not haunting broader Canadian culture; that would only be possible if they’d ever ceased to exist. The children are repeatedly at the butt of racist taunts and jokes, but their responses are divided. Stephanie, slightly older, is apprehensive but quickly forgiving about judgments made based on her race. Emmy, however, finds the jokes funny, if not flattering, and makes some herself, to the immediate condemnation of her justly irascible mother. 

Mirroring Judith and Steve are Pat (Chris Pang) and Carol (Sarah Gadon). Pat is Japanese-Australian and Carol is ostensibly a white Canadian; the pair have no kids. To Judith, Pat represents a foil to Steve: he is comfortable crying in front of crowds, and he’s highly attuned to the grief of family and culture from which Judith is suffering. Carol, on the other hand, mimics Steve’s inconsideration, and on one occasion, while complimenting the cuteness of Judith’s kids, makes a comment about “how exotic” they will look when they’re older. Steve makes a similarly tinged quip in referring to Pat, implying that his new Jaguar is likely a compensation for his poor endowment because, well, “that’s just what people say.” He then defends himself by saying he’s clearly not racist, how could that even be a conversation. He has a Japanese-Canadian wife. Considering the complexity of its themes, then, it’s ironic that Seagrass flourishes when it focuses on the perspectives of the children. The way that racism is learned, and not inherited in a formal sense, is conveyed in an engaging, challenging, and enlightening way when the kids are on the receiving end of racist remarks. In these scenes, particularly when focused on the younger children, there is the sense that both the transgressor and recipient of such comments are ignorant to their deeper implications and harm, an ignorance that ultimately lends to the acknowledgment of a problem, as well as an optimism for the possibility of change. The children are much more dynamic characters, too, and throughout the film we watch as they become increasingly attuned — due to the conflict of their parents — to the harsher complexities of life in the broader world. 

The parents, however, are another story. Carol, and especially Steve, make such blatantly xenophobic comments that the viewer is only able to perceive them as either highly ignorant or highly imauthentic, given the races of their respective spouses. And while Steve does show some emotional development over the course of the film’s near-two-hour runtime, he shows little sensitization. For a film that focuses on the unjust subjugation of one group of people based on their stereotyping, it’s a shame that Seagrass defers to typification to convey its important cultural truths. Carol is given little room to be anything more than an uncouth and vain wife, who has little interest in children for fear of losing her figure. Otherwise, she has no voice. Likewise, despite the promise of Steve as a complex figure at the film’s outset, one internally warring between his deep care for his family and his guarded masculinity, he too is victim to being reduced to a type, an insecure jock who can’t look beyond the blinders of his immediate life experience. By flattening these characters, Hama-Brown disallows viewers from seeing themselves in them, an approach that would allow for more nuanced discussion and self-reflection about how we can all be more considerate. Instead, Carol and Steve feel something like racist scapegoats; two characters that allow viewers to default to a distanced and righteous sanctimony. These simplifications are made more unappealing by some squarely on-the-nose dialogue and over-the-top acting. In a scene where the two couples find themselves on a double date at a dive bar, Judith gets overly drunk and begins laying into Steve, who in turn calls her a “bitch.” Maki wails in such a discomfiting rage that it takes the audience entirely out of the film, and instead will equally draw viewers to the familiar coming-of-age memory of drunken freshmen at one’s first booze-heavy high school party and that famous Michael Caine quote on acting that goes something like, “You’re supposed to be drunk, not act drunk.” 

Seagrass‘s ending converges in a whirl of suspense. The family fights, and Emmy finds herself in the cave as the tide quickly begins to rise. What follows is a finale commensurate with the emotional and historical complexity of Seagrass, a debut that is venerable for its ambition and the richness of its visual language. Just before the film’s climax, as Judith and Steve approach their big blow-up, Judith castigates Steve for sitting on his ass and watching the TV. On it, newscasters discuss the riots razing Vancouver in response to the Canucks’ Stanley Cup loss. 17 years later, a similar loss would occur, resulting in five times the damage to the city. Somewhere, an older Steve, divorced or not, likely watches an uncannily similar newscast, wondering how history had the gall to plagiarize itself so blatantly. Leaving the theatre, viewers of Seagrass will either rejoice in its originality or bemoan its “wokeness.” To the latter, Hama-Brown cogently asks how long history must haunt us until we finally get the point, make peace, and move onward. 

DIRECTOR: Meredith Hama-Brown;  CAST: Ally Maki, Luke Roberts, Sarah Gadon, Chris Pang;  DISTRIBUTOR: Game Theory Films;  IN THEATERS: February 23;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 55 min.