VIFF 2020 Review: Monkey Beach
DISCLAIMER: I know you’re all getting my first VIFF review just after it ended on October 7th. Thing is I’ve been bogged down with work and taking online courses which left me with little energy to do reviews. Now imagine me adding film-watching to the mix. Yes, that would take all my energy away! Now that VIFF is over, I can finally post reviews over time. Most of the films I believe would still be accessible via streaming services.
Lots of people who are into VIFF have a lot of reasons to want to see Monkey Beach. I wanted to see it because it’s a novel I studied in an online University course fifteen years ago. Those that see it will be happy with what they saw.
The film begins in East Vancouver. Lisamarie Hill thought she could get somewhere after leaving her town in the reserve, but she’s ended up rock bottom. Her friend tells her she needs to return to get her life back together…and then disappears.
Lisa returns back home. It’s like a prodigal daughter welcome. The parents are happy to see her back, her brother Jimmy is happy to see her back, relatives are happy to see her back, old friends are mostly happy to see her back. Her grandmother ‘MaMa-oo’ is happy to see her back. However she’s uncomfortable with returning. She knows of problems going around the reserve plus it doesn’t offer too much of a promising future. Even her younger brother Jimmy, who showed huge potential to be an Olympic swimmer, missed the Olympic trials because a work accident broke his collarbone.
One night while she is sleeping, she notices the trickster come to send her a message. She is haunted by the trickster. She knows because she inherited a gift where she can sense future events to others, including dreadful events. It’s a gift she first learned of as a child. She learned of it during a family vacation during her childhood at Monkey Beach. She remembers the vacation well. It was her family, Ma-ma-oo, and Uncle Mick. It was a vacation full of many warm memories of family togetherness, but also of a memory that haunts her. She remembers that of a mythical creature in the woods. Something mysterious and she can’t remember what he looks like, but she knows he’s haunting.
Returning to the reserve reminds her of a lot of uncomfortable things. First, Uncle Mick is long gone. He had a big influence on her life where she was taught to be proud of her Indigenous heritage. It’s a pride Mick taught out of anger as he was taught in a residential school and suffered the abuse at the hands of the priests and the system. Mick taught Lisa and Jimmy how to be defiantly proud to be Indigenous, but Lisa shouting “**** the oppressors,” at school didn’t go well with her parents. Also missing is Ma-ma-oo. Ma-ma-oo was key in teaching Lisamarie many Haisla skills and traditions.
It’s not just of those deceased. It’s also in the reserve. She’s noticed how many of her friends had lives that fell apart. She noticed the hostility of Josh, one of the older young adults, towards others. On top of it, Jimmy is dating Karaoke: Josh’s ex-girlfriend, and Karaoke is pregnant. Jimmy has been playing it cool, but she senses something’s not right.
Over time, the visions become a lot more frightening. Lisa has every reason to be concerned. She had frightening images of the deaths of Mick and Ma-Ma-oo before they died. She has visions of something terrible about to happen to Jimmy. Her parents however don’t want to hear about her visions. Soon she learns of bad things waiting to happen. It becomes evident as Josh disrupts a rap performance at a party with his angry rant. Plus Karaoke reveals the shocking secret that the baby is not Jimmy’s but Josh’s, out of a rape. On top of that, the images of the trickster become more and more frequent.
Lis then decides to take the boat out to the ocean. Her parents are nervous, but she is insistent as she senses something bad will happen to Jimmy out on a fishing boat. She has every reason too because Josh is on the boat too. She’s able to sense that Josh is about to fight Jimmy and is out of control. She makes her rush trying to find Jimmy, but has to return to Monkey Beach to face the demon who’s been haunting her. She comes prepared with a mask made by Uncle Mick and a drum. She is ready to meet the being head-on and face whatever comes to her. Part of her battle includes making a trip to the underworld. The film ends in surprising, but positive, fashion.
This is a unique story. It’s a story of a young woman dealing with the harsh realities of the world she’s living in as well as dealing with a supernatural gift that risks being a curse. It’s a story of a young Indigenous woman struggling to exist when the two most influential people in her life have passed. Ultimately it becomes a story of triumph when she learns that she ultimately learns she is a person of strength and she has the support of her deceased ancestors behind her.
Indigenous culture is very present in the story. Culture is most present during scenes of Lisamarie being taught the ways of her peoples from Ma-Ma-oo. It’s like a rite of passage to pass on the traditional ways to the granddaughter. Culture is also present in the appearance of the mythical ‘trickster.’ However the harsh realities of Indigenous communities and Indigenous peoples are also very present. We see it in Uncle Mick when he talks of his time at residential schools. One can often assume it’s this racist abuse that fuels his defiance and Indigenous pride. We see it in the reserve as there appears to be so little future available for the young and they’re left confused which direction to pursue. We see that in the angry attitudes, especially in Josh. It’s a story that does not stray away from realities. In fact the realities shown at the reserve in the film are common realities sees in many reserves.
The film will have people interested in the storyline coming to see it. The film will also have some people in the audience who have already read the novel. For those that don’t know, the novel Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson was released in 2000. It won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize of 2001 and was shortlisted for a Governor General’s award in fiction. Way back, I took an online University course in Canadian literature and Monkey Beach was one of the novels we studied. I liked the story because it was set as Lisa was a teenager in the 1980’s. I’m not Indigenous but some memories of that period of my time reminded me of some moments of my own teenagehood. There were even times while reading I had the feeling Ma-ma-oo was my own grandmother.
For someone that’s read the novel, I came in with my own expectations of what I was most expecting to see included in the story. I know it’s a challenge to adapt a 300-page novel to film. I know it’\s a matter of including some things, but also leaving other things out. I was figuring since most of the novel is about Lisa in her teen years, I was anticipating most of the film story would also be about Lisa’s teen years. Instead they went for a bigger focus on her time as a young adult returning to the reserve. The film did focus on her years as a young girl and as a teenager, but less than I hoped. Also the novel did more focus on Jimmy and his swimming pursuits, but was only seen briefly in the film. The film was also too brief on the focusing of Ma-ma-oo’s death.
I think in retrospect I’ve still been doing a lot of questioning whether they put in the right parts for the story or if they left out a lot of parts I feel were crucial. I think a lot of people who have read the novel would also be left questioning if the film adapted the novel well, if not properly.
I admire the work done by director Loretta Todd. She did a very good job in directing and co-writing with Johnny Darrell and Andrew Duncan the story for the film. The film’s imperfections are noticeable, but it doesn’t take away from the better parts of the film. There are more positive qualities of the film than flaws. Grace Dove did an excellent job as Lisamarie. Grace has had professional experience before as the host of a television show and acting in The Revenant. She does very well as the young protagonist struggling to make sense and to find herself. Adam Beach was also excellent as Uncle Mick. He delivers a role excellent of a man divided between pride and hurt. Tina Lameman was also good as Ma-ma-oo, but I feel her role could have been more developed and had more presence in the film. On the negative, I felt the role of child Lisa was underplayed by the young actress. That could have been directed better.
In short, Monkey Beach is an imperfect depiction of the novel. It leaves wondering if certain scenes can be done better. Nevertheless it does have a lot of positive qualities and makes for a film, and a story, worth seeing.