By Nadia Dalimonte
Rainbow Dickerson and Kiawentiio Tarbell in Beans (2020)
The 1990 Oka Crisis in Quebec witnessed a 78-day standoff between government forces and two Mohawk communities protesting to save their sacred land from being torn by a golf course extension. Tracey Deer’s incredible debut feature, Beans, is based around her experience surviving the Crisis. Deer chronicles the events from the perspective of an Indigenous girl named Beans (Kiawentiio Tarbell). The film completely elevates the coming-of-age genre with a refreshing point of view and a standout performance from Kiawentiio Tarbell as a girl grappling with newfound adulthood.
The film begins with Beans and her mother Lily (Rainbow Dickerson) attending a prospective student interview at Queen Heights Academy, a predominantly white school that boasts opportunity. Lily, who has ambitious dreams for her daughter’s future, preps Beans with interview questions and offers full support, while her father would prefer that she chooses a different school close to her roots. On the page, this recalls plots for multiple coming-of-age stories where parents’ wishes get in the way of what their children want. In the case of Beans, this becomes an afterthought in the midst of a community protest, which the local government escalated by threatening to extend a golf course on sacred Mohawk burial grounds.
Deer's film centers around women as she tells the story through Beans, who tries to grasp what’s happening around her while also caring for her little sister, under the protective wing of their mother. The power of this film is that Deer does not go into linear detail about the beginning, middle, and end of the standoff. She is more interested in the characters of this story, focusing on how they absorb the violent and heartbreaking effects of the Crisis. Deer also takes an incredibly detailed look into how Beans adjusts to adolescence and peer pressure. An innocent Beans meets a teenager named April (Paulina Jewel Alexis), who has a tough exterior and is eager to teach her how to fight. The two soon get into rebellious decision making and side effects of peer pressure, while also grappling with complete rage against local cops and vile residents. Kiawentiio Tarbell delivers a star-making performance as Beans. She’s absolutely riveting to watch, and her screen presence adds a very strong layer to this story. The cast also includes a few standouts: Rainbow Dickerson, playing a protective and firm mother, is great and has a phenomenal car scene that made me weep. Violah Beauvais, playing Beans’ younger sister Ruby, gives a performance mature beyond her years.
Strong writing and overall filmmaking really elevate the coming-to-age genre with a refreshing perspective from an Indigenous girl. It’s unfortunately rare that such representation is seen on film. Beans is a necessary film as well as a doubly exciting debut for its director Tracey Deer and star Kiawentiio Tarbell.