15-year-old Mi-gMaq Aila hasn’t grown up in the easiest circumstances. Her mother hung herself following a tragic car accident. Her father Joseph (Glen Gould) is in jail, presumably from the same incident. Her one guardian is her perpetually stoned, alcoholic uncle Burner who is looked after more by Aila rather than the other way round. The only reason she hasn’t been sent to the local residential school yet is because the sadistic local Indian Agent Popper extorts money as “delinquency” tax. Aila amasses this sum by selling weed with a gang of unreliables. The only person she counts on is her younger brother, Juj.
In this already precarious life, things are about to get a whole lot worse. Popper steals Aila’s monthly delinquency tax from one of the unreliables and while she formulates a plan to get it back, Joseph returns from prison. Joseph is no model citizen; he is tortured by the loss of his wife, disappointed with the impoverished world he has come back to, and unable to control his emotions.
Aila is not one to roll over and accept fate. She’s resourceful and strong. She has brains, grit, and artistic talent that she puts to good use. She takes whatever beating the world has for her and bounces back. Aila is a survivor and we are on her side from alpha.
At heart, writer and director Jeff Barnaby’s film is a simple story of good vs. evil. Popper is abusive and cruel, with nothing to redeem him, the residential school he runs, or his associates. Aila is heroic, though the people who surround her are broken by circumstances.
While the plot is quite straightforward, Barnaby textures the film with attentive scenes of Aila’s gritty world — a house-party to welcome back Joseph, an Indian grave yard in the woods, an image of her riding her souped-up bicycle. The film is raw in its presentation of a violent, merciless world almost to exaggeration. Yet, Aila takes hold of whatever comfort she can find, even if it is only in her memory and imagination.
The film is not without flaws. Largely, these come from skips and lapses in the plot. Popper gives a speech about events that have taken place since Joseph’s return — including an exploding car — yet Popper didn’t seem to be present at these events. The theft of Aila’s money seems over-explained and her connection with two elders is under-explained.
Despite its flaws, there’s something very gritty and compelling in the story. A believable world is evoked, even with the film’s nods to horror. I especially liked Barnaby’s use of imagery to convey complicated messages, such as when Aila’s old woman mask stares out from the back of her head. While Barnaby sometimes sometimes pounds out his messages with a sledgehammer, he can also paint ideas with a light touch. Finally, Kawennahere Devery Jacobs does a terrific job as Aila, a likeable heroine from start to finish.
Rhymes for Young Ghouls opens February 28th.