Written by: Hannah Tran | November 1st, 2021
Beans (Tracey Deer, 2020) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Based in part on her own childhood, Tracey Deer’s Beans contrasts the familiar tropes of adolescence with the unfortunately familiar racial and cultural conflicts faced by First Nations people. One of these is horror enough for Beans (Kiawentiio), a nickname for the protagonist at its helm. Her real name is Tekehentahkhwa, but she doesn’t want to draw attention to herself based on her identity, especially not when her family is living through the violent 1990 Oka Crisis, in which the Quebec town of Oka and the nearby Mohawk people nearby clashed after plans were developed to expand a golf course into an area that included Mohawk burial grounds.
Using her skills as a documentarian, Deer creates a clear and thoughtful picture of this tumultuous moment in history. And although its ideas may not always come together, there are many moments within Beans that succeed in both remembering and memorializing the pain of that time and thinking about how we can use those experiences as a guide to press forward. One of the major ways we see this actualized is in Deer’s use of archival footage, through which she expresses the sentiments of the people and uses footage of events similar to those in the film to emphasize its truth. This is especially important as the depictions and performances of these dynamics can sometimes feel clumsy and inauthentic. Because the screenplay often fails at subtlety, this footage is a strong anchor for its narrative restraint.
Beans’ story is relatable, even if she proves to be not the most likeable character. Among the line of characters, however, she is the only one we truly see change. Her transformation is frustrating and often fails to make logical sense, but the strength in Deer’s execution is that it does not necessarily ask you to like the lead role; instead, she wants you to understand her. The reasons why she acts the way she does in the activism thrust upon her and the social order of pre-teen relationships is illuminated by her experiences navigating both of these things, and this is where the screenplay is at its strongest.
But although it eventually finds the right balance between the two different types of social anxiety, the movie’s final message fails to do either story justice by taking on oversimplified mantras about proving others wrong and setting an example by being true to yourself. It’s hardly groundbreaking material for something like this, but it is difficult to draw a straight line of thought from the points it presents. It’s exhausting and confusing sometimes, but Beans delivers where it matters most. It’s simple and familiar, but that familiarity serves to universalize Tracey Deer’s experiences, and its simplicity allows for the beautiful cinematography and the handful of cringey, occasionally hilarious incidents within it to take on new, uncharted meaning.