Rhymes for Young Ghouls is an impressive feature film debut by Jeff Barnaby about life on a native reserve in the era of residential schools.
By: Bruce DeMara
Rhymes for Young Ghouls
Starring Kawennahere Devery Jacobs, Mark Antony Krupa, Glen Gould. Written and directed by Jeff Barnaby. 88 minutes.
Life on the rez is the mid-’70s is incredibly challenging, especially one situated literally in the shadow of a nearby native residential school.
But despite the oppression regularly visited upon the Mi’kmaq people of the Red Crow reserve by corrupt Indian Agent Popper and his brutish cadre, they’re a surprisingly resilient lot.
That’s especially true of 15-year-old Aila, who runs the family marijuana grow-op business with a maturity well beyond her years, the proceeds of which are used in part to pay the “truancy tax” to keep her and other young people out of the forbiddingly fortress-like St. D’s.
When Aila’s father, Joseph, comes home after seven years in prison, he finds little cause for celebration. Even fishing on the nearby lake is banned for no apparent reason by Popper, who arbitrarily metes out brutal punishment to anyone who dares stand up to him.
It is Aila who has come to the end of her tether and decides to exact retribution.
Writer/director Jeff Barnaby’s feature film debut is impressive on many fronts, first in its evocation of the time when native people still lived under the paternalistically despotic rule of the government and its representatives.
Barnaby doesn’t shy away from portraying the self-indulgently indolent lives of the denizens of the Crow’s Kingdom, people who party hardy as a way to retreat from the tyranny of their existence while struggling to hold on to a culture that is being stripped away with each passing generation.
The cast is made up almost entirely of aboriginal Canadians and they are an impressive lot, particularly Kawennahere Devery Jacobs in the lead role as the soulful Aila, who is still mourning her mother’s death but remains tough and resourceful. Glen Gould is also impressive as Joseph, a man whose stoicism hides a life filled with pain and regret. Mark Antony Krupa is suitably despicable as the sadistic Popper.
Barnaby’s script, though a tad meandering, contains elements of humour and mysticism. There’s a nice moody bluegrass-infused score and a nice sense of authenticity in the period detail, right down to the “stubby” beer bottles.
Iconic Canadian director Norman Jewison, the recent winner of the Toronto Film Critics Association’s Technicolour Clyde Gilmour Award, has bestowed the $50,000 prize in film services to Barnaby and in that, Jewison has chosen wisely and well.
With a tone alternating between mournful, defiant and hopeful, Rhymes for Young Ghouls is a rewarding experience by a talented director who’s sure to make his mark on Canadian cinema.