absentee father, bad schools, Best of 2014, Brandon Oakes, Canadian films, cinema, Cody Bird, coming of age, crooked government officials, death of a child, dramas, drug dealers, dysfunctional family, father-daughter relationships, favorite films, feature-film debut, film reviews, films, ghosts, Glen Gould, heist films, Indian agents, Indian Residential School, Jeff Barnaby, Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, Mark Antony Krupa, Michel St. Martin, mother-daughter relationships, Movies, Nathan Alexis, Native Americans, Red Crow Indian Reservation, Rhymes For Young Ghouls, Roseanne Supernault, set in Canada, set in the 1970s, stolen money, strong female character, suicide, the Mi'kmaq, truancy officer, writer-director-editor
Every once in a while, a film comes completely out of nowhere and knocks me on my ass like a ghost train ripping through grand-pa’s house. It could be something I’ve never heard of, something that I’m not expecting to like or something that just completely blew away my expectations. While this has already been a pretty great year for film (compiling my Best of…lists has been harder than ever), leave it to one of the underdogs to sneak up and slap the complacency right off my stupid face. In this case, I’m talking about writer-director Jeff Barnaby’s feature-debut, the instantly classic Rhymes For Young Ghouls (2014). Only time will tell but, once the dust has settled, this may very well end up being in my Top Five of the year. Hell…it might even end up leading the parade.
Beginning in 1969 before jumping forward seven years, we find ourselves on the Red Crow Indian Reservation, in Canada. We first meet our hero, Aila, as a young girl (played by Miika Whiskeyjack). While her family life may not be the most conventional (her parents, Joseph (Glen Gould) and Anna (Roseanne Supernault), grow and sell marijuana with the help of Aila’s uncle, Burner (Brandon Oakes)), they seem like a loving family. After a night of drinking leads to a terrible tragedy, however, Aila’s life is torn asunder: with her brother dead, her father in prison and her mother a suicide victim, the poor girl’s life seems over before it begins.
Or it would, if Aila wasn’t such a completely kick-ass, resilient person. When we meet her seven years later, at the ripe-old age of 16 (played by the absolutely amazing Kawennahere Devery Jacobs), Aila is now running the grow operation on her own, with the able assistance of Burner and her friends, Sholo (Cody Bird) and Angus (Nathan Alexis). Completely self-assured and wise beyond her years, Aila is the glue that holds everything together, especially since her uncle is such a pothead wastoid. She’s a problem solver, a no-nonsense adult trapped in a teen’s body and she’s always quite the sight whenever she’s wearing her gas-mask and rolling her specialty blunts.
Along with running the operation, Aila and the others must also be wary of the odious, corrupt and infinitely shit-headed Indian agent, Popper (Mark Antony Krupa), who actually went to Catholic school with her now-imprisoned father. Popper runs the local “Indian Residential School,” a terrible place that’s more prison than educational establishment and where the kids are beaten and placed in solitary confinement at regular intervals. As we’re told at the beginning of the film, all Native American children between the ages of 5 and 16 are required to go to the school: truant officers (such as Popper) are authorized to use “whatever force is necessary” to get wayward kids back to school, including beating them senseless. The truant officers are also able to arrest, without warrant, any guardians who don’t make sure their kids go to school.
There’s always a loophole, however, especially when government officials are as evil and corrupt as the Indian agents: for a regular fee (a “truancy tax”), the truant officers will look the other way, allowing any kids who can pay the opportunity to run free. Thanks to her successful grow operation, Alia has always had plenty of money to pay the “taxes” for her and the others. When they end up losing all of their money in a trumped-up raid by Popper and his men, however, Alia is now facing the terrifying prospect of losing her freedom and individuality, all in one fell swoop. Things get even more chaotic when her father is finally released from prison and returns home, intent on being the father that he couldn’t be before. As he surveys the mass of drunk, stoned people crashing all over their house, however, the disappointment in Joseph’s voice is unmistakable: “How long has this been going on?,” he asks Alia. “About seven years,” she snaps back and the point is clear: if “dad” is expecting a Hallmark-style reunion, he better lose elsewhere.
With a host of outside forces closing in on her, Alia also must deal with her increasing nightmares, nightmares which feature her mother as a rotting zombie: since suicides are buried without grave markers, her mother is now “nameless” and stuck between the world of the dead and the world of the living. Facing pressure from all sides, Alia must do everything she can to avoid cracking and preserve the unity of her family. Popper won’t make any of it easy, however, which is just fine by her: as Alia learned long ago, sometimes the only thing you can do is put your head and charge forward, victory be damned. In the Kingdom of the Crow, no one is safe…least of all, the young.
Watching the film, I was frequently reminded of another showstopping dark-horse, Debra Granik’s stunning Winter’s Bone (2010), the film that first introduced the world to Jennifer Lawrence. Fitting, in a way, since Rhymes For Young Ghouls should serve to introduce us to yet another amazing young actor: Kawennahere Devery Jacobs. I don’t have praise enough for her performance but will say that I was completely and absolutely blown-away by her. If she’s not a huge star in 5 years or so, I’ll buy a haberdashery and eat every damn hat in the place.
Part of the sheer joy of the film is how completely unpredictable it is, so I’ll say as little about specifics as possible. Suffice to say that Barnaby’s killer script manages to seamlessly work in a heist subplot, as well as a beautifully-realized moment where Alia’s “grandmother” tells her a story and we see it visualized in a graphic-novel style. The film is in constant motion and is endlessly inventive, never dull or tedious. There’s also no sense of being force-fed emotional pabulum: the film deals with some very big issues (the stability of families; children caring for their parents; the suicide of a parent; institutionalized racism; class-warfare; traditional Native American ways versus the “modern world;” children working…it goes on and on, to be honest. Rhymes For Young Ghouls is one of the few films I’ve seen lately that actually feels important: these are issues that folks should be discussing and Barnaby’s film doesn’t shy from any of them.
From a filmmaking standpoint, Rhymes For Young Ghouls is nothing short of astounding. In fact, I daresay that a handful of sequences reminded me of nothing less than some of Scorcese’s best work: the opening slo-mo raid, in particular, was so fabulously “Scorcese” that I’m pretty sure I squealed in joy. There’s a synthesis of music and image that’s both flawless and extremely effective: one of the best, most subtle moments is the one where an angelic choir underscores a decidedly devious scene. Barnaby also traffics in a kind of magical-realism that can be pretty head-spinning: there were at least a few points in the film where I questioned the reality of what was happening, thanks to a combination of tricky camera-work and forced perspectives. Even divorced from its amazing cast and excellent script, Rhymes For Young Ghouls is one of the best looking, most well-realized film I’ve seen in ages.
At this point, all I can realistically continue to do is praise the film endlessly, so let me wrap it up thusly: Rhymes For Young Ghouls is a nearly perfect film, one that I absolutely can’t get out of my head after seeing it. While there are a handful of very minor issues spread throughout the film, overall, I absolutely adored it. This, as far as I’m concerned, is the reason we should all keep going to the movies and supporting strong, individualistic filmmakers. It’s almost impossible for me to believe that this is Barnaby’s debut, since it’s so self-assured and impressive. There’s not much time left in this year and I still have quite a few films to see but, if you’re a betting person, I’d wager money that you’ll see Rhymes For Young Ghouls on top of at least one of my lists. Watch the movie and I’m willing to bet that it’ll top your lists, too.