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.
The VIFF is my best chance to see a Canadian feature film each year. I got my chance with Suck It Up. I’m glad I saw it.
The film begins with Ronnie collapsing by a lawnmower drunk. Ronnie has just lost her older brother Garrett. Faye is in Vancouver having a job interview for a school board job she really wants when she learns the news about Ronnie. Ronnie was her best friend until Faye broke up with Garrett last year. She is encouraged by Ronnie’s guardian aunt and uncle to come over to Calgary. Faye meets with them all and they feel the best way to help Ronnie recuperate is for her and Faye to go someplace for a getaway. Faye decides to go to their old cabin in Invermere.
At first, you think things won’t work. Faye is the cool one under control while Ronnie is outrageous enough to flash her breasts to any car full of guys passing by. Once in Invermere, they try to make themselves comfortable in the cabin. However it seems Ronnie is making herself all too comfortable with every guy she meets up with. Especially this creepy guy names Dale who rubs Faye the wrong way. As Ronnie is getting closer to a guy names Shamus and his freewheeling friends from the bowling alley, Faye meets a guy of her own. His name is Granville. Granville may come across as geeky at first because of his asthma and diabetes, but the two connect as Faye is charmed by his artistic dreaminess.
Things prove too much for Faye as Ronnie’s craziness is cramping her style and her life. Faye tries to have a good time, but can’t deny that she has things to take care of in her life, like a potential job in Vancouver. One day, Ronnie and her friends come after a day of fun and give Faye some lemonade. It’s after Faye drinks it that she finds out it’s laced with MDMA, and just 1/2 an hour before her job interview on Skype! Faye humiliates herself during the interview.
Even though Faye is given a second interview days from now, Faye appears to be the one falling apart now. It’s not just about the interview and dealing with Ronnie. It’s because Faye is having trouble dealing with Garrett’s death. She can’t handle that she didn’t answer the call from Garrett’s phone just hours before he died. She came to Invermere with Garrett’s ashes and two envelopes from Garrett: one for her and one for Ronnie. She open’s Ronnie’s envelope instead. Even hearing info about Garrett from a woman names Alex who works at the town ice cream parlor makes things all that more frustrating for Faye.
Then the two decide to hold a party at the cabin. All of their Invermere friends are invited and they all show up, including shady Dale and his mud-filled inflatable pool for mud wrestling. Ronnie’s in a partying mood but Faye is having issues. It’s still all about Garrett. Spending time with Granville doesn’t make things easier and talking with Alex makes things worse. Then Ronnie films out what Faye did with her letter. She confronts Faye with harsh words about the phone call from Garrett’s phone. This leads to a fist fight where they both end up in the pool of mud. But after that, the two suddenly make peace and resolve all that happened. Even the opened letter. It turns out Garrett was a controlling person in his life and tried to control both of them. Faye and Ronnie pack up with Ronnie being in great spirits and not looking as troubled as she was at the beginning. They promise to get together again soon.
At first, I found this comedy entertaining. Then I did a bit of thinking. This is a kind of comedy that I can see the script working in Hollywood. Have you seen a lot of the Hollywood comedies in theatres now? They’re pretty dreadful, eh? They’re relying too much on jokes with shock value and even lewd or crude one-liners to get a laugh. They make you think they’re that desperate for laughs. This comedy doesn’t need to rely on one-liners or crude jokes. All it has to rely on are the characters and the scenarios to make this work. That’s what made this comedy work. We have a bizarre situation of two friends who are two opposites going away to a resort town to help one recover from her brother’s death. The other friend has unresolved issues over his death too. The mix of the two causes havoc, but it all ends when they get into a fight where they accidentally end up in the mud wrestling pool. Then the friendship is rekindled and they’re both able to make peace with his death. To think Hollywood couldn’t think this up, but Canadians did!
The film is also about ironies. The two girls are complete opposites. You first wonder how on earth they became friends in the first place. You first think Granville is a nerdy guy, but he becomes the perfect one for Faye. There are even times later on when you wonder which of the two are having a harder time dealing with Garrett’s death. It’s the fistfight that becomes the turning point where Faye and Ronnie are finally able to resolve things and go back to being the good friends they were. In the end, both get over his death when they come to terms with what a control freak he was in his lifetime. Even seeing Ronnie toss Garrett’s ashes off a cliff with them still in the jar is a bit of comedic irony too.
One thing about the film is that it doesn’t try to mess with the crowd too much. The subject of death and how Ronnie’s family is full of cancer-related deaths even makes you wonder if this would become a tragedy soon, but it doesn’t. It’s able to take a dark troubling matter and turn it into a good comedy. It also won’t get too manipulative. One thing you’ll notice is that there are no flashbacks to when Garrett was alive, nor are there scenes of Garrett coming from nowhere to talk to either of the two. Another thing about this film is that the story lines are placed out very well. I’ll admit the film starts on a scene that makes you think it could have been given another take, but the film gets better over time and the whole story is kept consistent from start to finish.
This film directed by Jordan Canning and written by Julia Hoff was very well-done and well put-together, even more than most Hollywood comedies nowadays. This is kudos for Julia because this is her first screenplay for a feature-length film. Erin Carter did a great job as Faye and Grace Glowicki was great as Ronnie. The film needed them to be in their characters to make it work, but they were able to keep their roles from being one-dimensional. I addition, they had the right chemistry together to make this story work on screen. Dan Beirne was also very good portraying the misfit Granville who wins Faye’s love. Toby Marks was also great as Alex: the one caught in the middle between Faye and Garrett.
Suck It Up is a Canadian-made comedy that is way better-done than most of today’s Hollywood comedies. It starts out sluggish and even may appear to tread into ‘drama territory’ at times, but it ends on the right note.