A violent moment in history stands as the backdrop of Tracey Deer’s film, Beans. The infamous dispute over Mohawk land was an extreme moment for those in Canada, especially Indigenous communities, as police brutality and racial hate became a reality captured by cameras and headlines. Actual archival footage is scattered between the fictional moments, based on Deer’s own experiences as a preteen during this 78 day standoff in 1990. This coming-of-age story hits various emotions as it displays a relatable loss of innocence that is part of growing up.
Beans is a 12 year old Mohawk girl who is a couple months away from starting at a private, mostly white school. She is carefree and childlike as she runs around the wooded area with her little sister. All of this changes when the local government announces their plans to expand the golf course near Oka, Quebec, directly affecting the Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawá:ke communities. The proposed construction would disrupt Mohawk burial grounds, sacred land, and the Indigenous communities decide to stand up for their rights. Tensions rise and barricades are built as the racist attitudes towards the Mohawk people become forceful, but they refuse to back down.
Seeing that her parents still treat her like a child, Beans decides she wants to toughen up. She clings to what she sees as tough which is displayed in a nearby teenager, April who wears cool clothes, cusses, and hangs around with boys. Slowly, the unaffected little girl at the beginning of the film begins to fade as she explores her identity.
This is best represented in a moment where Beans is getting ready for bed. Her surroundings, including her bed sheets and pajamas show that of a child with cute cartoons and pink sparkles. She sits on her bed as she looks in the mirror, brushing her long hair. Beans starts to imitate April’s tough talk in her reflection. The phrases start mild until she builds up the courage to say her first curse word. The candid surprise on her face as she experiences this rite-of-passage is relatable, showing that in the midst of the Oka Crisis, she is changing.
Of course, like other coming-of-age stories, lessons are to be learned. Beans realizes that there isn’t a singular way to be tough, but it isn’t about swearing and dark eye makeup. One of the noticeable strengths of Deer’s screenplay, which she wrote with Meredith Vuchnich, leaves no side character underdeveloped. This is most noticeable with April, who has a compelling story on top of being a catalyst for Beans’ transformation.
Beans would not have been complete without the performances of Kiawentiio as the titular character and Paulina Alexis as April. These two characters couldn’t be more different from their home lives to their personalities to their motivations. They are each other’s foil. But, by the end of Beans, the two girls have learned from each other in a symbiotic friendship. April needed a nurturing ally, someone to tell her darkest secret to while Beans needs someone to bolster up her backbone. The end result is touching and a realistic example of friendship.
Coming-of-age films tend to hit similar beats and that is the beauty of Beans. Deer’s film displays that Indigenous people grow up too. Rarely do Native communities get a story that represents them without being plagued by stereotypes. And when this happens, a majority of these plots place Native people in the historical past, fulfilling the popular rhetoric that all Indigenous communities of North America are mystical or extinct. Beans breaks that. The film shows that not only do Indigenous people exist, it shows we are not backing down. We experience identity crises and first crushes the way other kids do. Even in the face of modern colonization, we will not be broken.
After almost a century of inaccurate representation, Beans is evidence that we have entered a Native cinema renaissance. I laughed, I sobbed, and I haven’t stopped talking about the film since the TIFF screening. May more films come out that are as educational, personal, and heartwarming as this one from Tracey Deer and may we never worry about inaccuracies in Indigenous storytelling ever again.