Toronto Review: Beans
In film criticism it’s easy to be dismissive of recurring themes as mere “tropes,” knocking a movie for merely going through the paces or failing to surprise us. Sometimes that’s fair, but often that sort of critique does a disservice to the filmmaker — whether they use a genre’s tropes is much less important than how they use them. In Beans, director Tracey Deer may hit some standard beats, but the coming-of-age story she’s telling is one so rarely seen that any structural familiarity really doesn’t matter.
Beans is set during the Oka Crisis of 1990, a months-long standoff between the Canadian government and two Mohawk communities in Quebec over the planned expansion of a golf course onto Mohawk land. Growing up in the midst of the conflict is adolescent Beans (played by a wonderful Kiawentiio), doing her best to live as normal a life as possible despite the menace and prejudice that surrounds her, her family, and her community.
In her feature debut, Deer shows remarkable control in crafting a tone that both feels specific to a time, place, and people, as well as maintaining the sense of universality present in the best of the coming-of-age genre. Smart use of archival footage roots the film firmly in history without feeling detached, and Deer doesn’t shy away from the realities of the conflict. In a particularly harrowing scene that resonates deeply today, Beans and her family are attacked by (mostly) white protestors while driving home — as we watch rocks being flung at the windshield while police stand by and do nothing, Deer takes us inside the car and shows us the courage it takes to fight through such an ordeal while reminding us that courage can manifest even through tears and panic.
It’s this dichotomy that helps give Beans its heft. The family dynamics set up Beans’ growth: her father is, at this point, mostly resigned to the need for violence, while her mother (a phenomenal Rainbow Dickerson) remains committed to the idea of peaceful resistance. As Beans makes her way through adolescence, she has to learn that being an adult sometimes means rebelling and sometimes means keeping your cool — you learn the importance of fighting for what you believe in while simultaneously knowing your own limitations and picking your battles. Yes, in many ways Beans is like any other teenager trying to find her place in the world, but few on-screen teenagers have had to navigate this particular world — and for that alone, Beans is a critical addition to the genre.