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Zack Mosley [Celluloid 09.30.13] Canada drama

One of the most shameful chapters in Canadian history is our Residential School system. Presided over the Department of Indian Affairs and the Catholic and Anglican churches, the Residential Schools were designed to assimilate First Nations children to the dominant white culture by force. Approximately 150,000 First Nations children were fed through a system that isolated them from their families, stripped them of their culture and language, and exposed them to institutionalized physical and sexual abuse. An amendment to the Indian Act in 1920 made Residential School attendance compulsory, and allowed for extralegal measures to be taken (against both children and their parents) to ensure compliance. The last Residential School remained open until 1996.

It is against this backdrop that Rhymes for Young Ghouls takes place. Set in 1976 on the Red Crow reservation in rural Quebec, Jeff Barnaby's audacious debut mixes historical fact with a heady brew of magic realism, hard-bitten crime drama, and pitch black humor. Aila (Devery Jacobs) grew up fast when her little brother was killed in a drunk driving accident, a tragedy that left her father in jail and her mother swinging from a noose. Now a tough-as-nails teenager managing a successful weed dealership with the help of a layabout uncle (Brandon Oakes) and a few friends, Aila's world is turned upside down by the disruptive return of her father Joseph (a powderkeg of a performance by Glen Gould). Joseph's antagonistic history with the local Indian Affairs agent Popper (mustache-twirling Mark Anthony Krupa) ensures that Aila's policy of paying off her truancy problems and swallowing her pride is at an end.

Barnaby is, of course, critical of the Residential School system and its officers. I would argue that the portrayal of Popper and his cronies is over-the-top, if the history itself were not over-the-top. For every instance of cartoonish villainy perpetrated by Popper, I'm sure there is a historical analogue. But Barnaby is also critical of First Nations people, on a number of counts. He does not back away from the issue of substance abuse, portraying the Red Crow reservation as a place where people drown their problems in drugs and alcohol, attempting to blot out their sorrows. It's suggested that this party lifestyle is an assimilation of a different kind, separating people from their cultural touchstones with the numbing agents of collective inebriation. Joseph voices this argument, criticizing the “red trash” passed out on his floor after a blowout shindig. But his rage, at the system, at his people, at his situation... his rage is all but dismissed by the other characters as something pointless and destructive. Even in the cathartic moments where the villains get their comeuppance, there is sadness, because the situation of Aila and co. remains grim and desperate. Drugs and alcohol are medicines for a wound that will not heal, and it's hard to fault people for trying to treat their problems with the only means available to them.

Not all cultural hand-me-downs are so destructive, however. Aila also inherits a talent for painting, and I believe that the film makes a hopeful argument in this one small gesture. No matter how much crap the First Nations people have been made to endure, in spite of the efforts made by the Canadian government to push assimilation, indigenous culture has persevered. More, it has proven itself worth passing on. That's anathema to what the Residential Schools were all about. Rhymes for Young Ghouls itself is a testament to this persistence of spirit, and a hopeful reminder that there are still First Nations voices telling First Nations stories out there.

For a freshman feature, Rhymes for Young Ghouls is remarkably assured, drawing from diverse inspiration (I got whiffs of Tarantino and the Coens, as well as recent indies like Winter's Bone (review) and Ballast) but emerging as something wholly unique. At times it feels like a horror movie, although even with the magic realist flourishes it wouldn't technically qualify as such. The Red Crow reservation and its denizens form a milieu I'm not often accustomed to seeing on screen, the characters feel authentic and the dialogue sparkles with regional specificity. Jeff Barnaby is definitely a filmmaker to keep an eye on, and Rhymes for Young Ghouls is one of the finest Canadian debuts in recent memory.

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