The year is 1990: Canadian Mohawk girl Tekehentakhwa (Kiawentiio) is twelve years old and has just applied for a place in the prestigious Queen of Angels Academy in Montreal. Her name of course is quite a mouthful and during an interview she jovially tells the schoolmistress to call her Beans, just like everyone else does. Beans’ mother Lily (Rainbow Dickerson, outstanding) is very much rooting for her to get in. Leaving the interview, Beans herself is not so sure.
The titular character is loosely based on the film’s director Tracey Deer, Mohawk herself, and while we are invited to follow Beans’ life during one hectic, pivotal summer, the similarities to 2017’s Lady Bird end there. The domestic drama is soon interrupted by a stunning real-life injustice: a native burial ground is being converted into a golf course. Local First Nations activists fight back, Beans’ cousin and father among them, resulting in the now-famous 1990 Oka Crisis that pitted two Mohawk communities against Quebec authorities. First-time feature director Deer draws no direct parallels to the Keystone XL pipeline protests, but they come to mind nonetheless.
A mother of two and with a third child on the way, Lily is by no means a bitter housewife, but Dickerson makes plain her vicarious thrill at seeing her daughter potentially leave their insular, low-income community for bigger, better things. At first the golf course protests serve as a fun distraction for the family as they wait for news from the school admissions board. But soon, no one gets to leave. An armed stand-off ensues between the Mohawk activists and the police. Roadblocks and barbed-wire fences are erected, and tempers run high. Lily and her two daughters are subjected to vicious racial abuse during a trip to the grocery store. Soon after that, rocks start to fly. Deer shoots these distressing scenes with unflinching directness and verisimilitude, reminiscent of Audiard and Greengrass. For Beans the innocence of childhood is all too soon over.
Deer’s impressive fiction debut, while not relentlessly heavy, doesn’t have much in the way of comic relief. The closest we come to that is a brief scene where Beans’ father (Joel Montgrand) decides to join the armed activists at a roadblock. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” an anxious Lily asks him. “Not really,” comes the hesitant reply. While Deer as a filmmaker has a clear view of the political and social struggles taking place (she started her film career as a documentarian), she is honest enough to admit that fighting for what is right does not always come naturally to people unaccustomed to raising their voices. Indeed it is the heavily pregnant Lily who ultimately does most of the fighting.
While the film goes through the motions of a somewhat formulaic coming-of-age story, it does so with a light touch. Locked inside their besieged community, the Mohawk continue to live their lives as best they can. Beans soon puts on makeup, forces down her first alcoholic drink and develops her first crush on a boy. A neighborhood mean girl (Paulina Alexis) teaches the meek Beans to defend herself against bullies of all sizes. But the requisite heroic moment when she finally stands up for herself never materializes quite the way we have come to expect from fiction. Beans becomes moody and even violent in ways that suggest a deep enmity towards white people, an enmity she may have inherited from her parents. Again, the director avoids easy answers.
Deer, who experienced the 72-day Oka Crisis herself as a child, finds other, even more impressive ways to show Beans’ progress. In a scene that neatly brings together the film’s two complementary elements, impending adulthood and the fight for social justice, Beans interrupts a riotous game of tag with her younger sister to join her mother in angrily staring down two soldiers rummaging through the family car at a checkpoint. For a brief moment mother and daughter, their relationship increasingly frayed by stresses both internal and external, stand together as one.