Beans (2020, Tracey Deer)

Beans is an almost outstanding, always pretty good coming-of-age story with a historical event weaving its way through the narrative. The film tracks Indigenous Canadian tweenager Kiawentiio over summer 1990. The film starts with her interviewing to go into a prestigious (and very white) high school, setting up a contrast between her actual name (Tekehentahkhwa) and her nickname (Beans). It’s essential, but it quickly gets back-burnered for the historical events.

So, in addition to Kiawentiio dealing with wanting to go to this high school, which also pleases mom Rainbow Dickerson but causes tension with dad Joel Montgrand, she’s also got to deal with the exceptional trauma of a summer-long stand-off between her tribe and the white Quebecois government. A neighboring town wants to tear out an Indigenous graveyard to extend their golf course. Kiawentiio watches the situation rapidly escalate in person; the film has a gentle start, then an absolutely harrowing sequence where Kiawentiio and adorable little sister Violah Beauvais have to navigate armed police tear gassing and raiding an Indigenous protest camp.

The film uses mostly news footage from the time, which reveals many white Canadians to be racist pieces of shit (though it’s incredible to see so many guns around and no Brown people murdered). Though the whites also attack the Indigenous people with tacit police consent, it’s not so different from the United States.

Director Deer leans heavily on the period news footage, letting the clips edify the viewer on the situation. Unfortunately, the footage doesn’t necessarily correspond to Kiawentiio’s experiences over the summer. And the news footage isn’t a great way of telling the history. The third act is full of deus ex machinas (deuses ex machina?), including the stand-off resolving in the news clips without sufficient transition information. Deer takes the story from A to B to C to E. D seems very important.

Or, if it’s not important for Kiawentiio, why was it so important for the film? Beans only runs ninety-two minutes, and ten of it has to be the news clips. While Kiawentiio narrating through essay or journal or something would’ve leaned on tropes, they’re tropes for a good reason.

But until the third act, Beans is smooth sailing. The standoff aggravates Kiawentiio’s cultural crisis even before she discovers how racist white people get. Following dad Montgrand telling her to toughen up, Kiawentiio befriends local delinquent and bully Paulina Alexis so Alexis can give her toughness lessons. After some false starts, physical assault, and bribery, Alexis agrees and mentors Kiawentiio in breaking bad.

Some of the deus ex machina involves Alexis, who gets a last-minute character reveal to explain her behavior. The friendship’s a reasonably strong character relationship throughout (Kiawentiio and little sister Beauvais is better but gets less attention), so the ending resolutions come off incredibly rushed. Even amid “Beans”’s rushes, Alexis gets the briefest conclusion. It’s too bad.

Deer’s a fine director. Sometimes, cinematographer Marie Davignon can’t keep up, which is too bad. The film always looks okay, but sometimes that okay comes with asterisks. Good music from Mario Sévigny and editing by Sophie Farkas Bolla. If only for a more balanced third act, “Beans” would be a big success.

As is, it’s an almost great historical character study. Kiawentiio’s excellent; there aren’t any slouches, with mom Dickerson quite good despite an eventually underwritten part.

Just wish that third act worked.

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