Kiawentiio in “beans”. Screenshot: YouTube.
Washington, DC – “Beans” is a dual coming-of-age story and history lesson, and both halves of this compelling and emotionally moving film are well done.
Filmmaker Tracey Deer reviews her childhood and the Kanesatake resistance of 1990 in an accessible film that reveals the legitimate motivations of the Mohawk people. And in a warm, emotional lead performance, actress Kiawentiio takes the audience on the process of growing from a child who things happen to a teenager who is aware of their surroundings, able to make their own decisions, and the world around it to be interpreted on purpose.
In the summer of 1990, Mohawk girl Tekehentahkhwa (Kiawentiio), nicknamed Beans, lives with her mother Lily (Rainbow Dickerson), her father Kania’tariio (Joel Montgrand) and her younger sister Ruby (Violah Beauvais) in the Mohawk reservation of Kahnawá: ke, Quebec.
She is caught between the different expectations of her parents. Lily wants Beans to attend the private academy where she works as an executive assistant in the hope that a good education will prepare her for a life outside the reservation. Resisting the idea that Beans must attend a school geared towards Whites or French people in order to have a better life, Kania’tariio worries instead that Beans isn’t ready for how cruel the world can be.
“Pumpkin, you have to be hardened,” he says and his words go down in his daughter.
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Beans is a bit softer than the other teens living on the reservation, especially April (Paulina Alexis), the crop top-wearing, fluently cursing young woman who mocks Beans for her outfits and her close relationship with Ruby and the apparently things knowing about boys that beans don’t know.
Whatever their differences, the girls – and everyone else on the reservation – are united against the nearby town of Oka, whose citizens are planning to expand a golf course into Mohawk land. It makes no difference to the city that the country is home to a cemetery and that it is only a fraction of the vast land that once belonged to the First Nations.
Oka’s people want the land; the government supports them and the conflict has been simmering for a long time. That is, until it eventually explodes, leading to violence and a stalemate.
The Mohawk claim the bridge between their land and Oka and refuse the passage of non-indigenous peoples. The Oka gain the support of the Canadian authorities and the Canadian Army. The grocery deliveries are slowly creeping up. People are starting to lose their jobs. Deer thoughtfully integrates real-life news material from that era, increasing the stakes with each transition scene. These simultaneous broadcasts and interviews contextualize the frustrations and pent-up anger on the part of the Mohawk community, as well as the casual racism and persistent cruelty of the Québécois.
“They make damn sure it doesn’t turn into cowboys and Indians,” Lily tells Kania’tariio when he goes to the protests in the early days, but “Beans” also argues that the tension has always been there, with one side obviously and repeatedly to blame.
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Beans picks up all of this, and the film follows the character as they form their own opinions and reactions. She begins to see the police as an enemy rather than an ally when she sees them pointing their guns at Mohawk women. She distrusts the idea of the private school after experiencing a terrible moment of discrimination in the city’s grocery store.
And after making friends with April in the film’s most meaningful relationship, she begins experimenting with more revealing clothes, makeup, and boys. In typical teenage fashion, Beans plays as soon as she gets a little older – but “Beans” consciously connects these decisions with the figure’s understanding of self-defense.
Kiawentiio’s performance isn’t always nuanced, but it gives her character an engaging exuberance. Your transformation from a broadly smiling, open-hearted kid to someone who is a little more suspicious and a lot more angry is effective, and certain scenes are standout.
Beans and Ruby collecting dozens of golf balls from the Mohawk graves is an early hit. Beans’ shock at herself when she accidentally curses, and then her delight in practicing those vulgarities in the mirror, is both playful and sobering. And the movie’s opening and closing scenes thoughtfully frame this character’s journey in a way that conveys the difference between choosing to appease others and choosing to honor yourself.
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“Beans” contains elements that, for younger viewers, require an explanation or a warning to certain viewers: a moment of self-harm, an attempted sexual assault, a discussion of family abuse. But Deer maneuvers these components so they never feel exploitative; Instead, they are an acknowledgment that certain traumas take years, maybe generations, to heal.
This thoughtfulness, along with the strong performances of the ensemble and the important historical lens of the film, make “Beans” a true family-friendly watch.
On demand and in selected cinemas. Not rated. 92 minutes. Dir: Tracey Deer. Contributors: Kiawentiio, Violah Beauvais, Rainbow Dickerson, Joel Montgrand, Paulina Alexis, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai. “Beans” was reviewed by the 2021 Virginia Film Festival.
About the author: Roxana Hadadi is a film, television and pop culture critic. She is a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and the Online Film Critics Society, and is a Tomatometer-recognized top critic for Rotten Tomatoes.
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