DIRECTED BY: Jeff Barnaby
FEATURING: Devery Jacobs, Mark Anthony Krupa, Brandon Oakes, Glen Gould
PLOT: A young girl on the Canadian Crow Reservation in the 1970s sells pot to afford to pay a “truancy tax” that keeps her out of the prison-like Indian school, but when the sadistic government agent who runs the reservation betrays their deal, she decides to strike back.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The trailer and description made it look like it might have some weird content; in reality, it’s a straightforward indie drama.
COMMENTS: Rhymes for Young Ghouls is a movie that is tailor made for praise from film critics: it’s a socially-conscious historical drama about an ethnic group that is underrepresented in cinema. It’s technically well-made, features an appealing young lead actress, and oozes good intentions. Since there are so few movies made by and for members of what Canadians refer to as the First Nations, refusing to pump this movie up—or, unthinkably, criticizing it—seems like an uncharitable act.
So, if you are a film critic, ethnic studies type, or a Native American starved for cinematic role models, you’ll probably fall over yourself praising Ghouls, and I’ll be hard pressed to muster much of a will to argue against you. Furthermore, Ghouls is unlikely to attract a sizable audience from outside that pool. Still, from the perspective of a member of the general movie-watching public looking at this as a standard narrative feature that I might hope to either entertain or enlighten ( preferably both) me, I have to reluctantly aver that Ghouls isn’t a success. I was keenly interested in the portrait of life on the reservation in 1976, and in the dilemma that traps clever young Aila into peddling weed to keep out of school; but as the story moves on, it becomes more predictable, turning into an endless series of scenes of white guys wailing on defenseless Indians with baseball bats until the Mi’gMaq princess brings vengeance for her people.
Ghouls is, at bottom, not so much a serious examination of life on the reservation in the 1970s as it is a post-colonial revenge fantasy. Part of the problem is the villain, Popper, the reservation’s chief Indian Agent and the most devilish of white devils. Not only is Mark Anthony Krupa (the cast’s sole gringo) the weakest of the main actors, he’s given the hardest role to try to pull off. Imagine Conan O’Brien cast as Satan to get a feeling of how this villainy plays out on screen. His character is a blatant symbol of (admittedly) unforgivable Canadian government oppression, but he is given no motivation or explanation for his moral turpitude. In fact, quite the opposite: a flashback shows how a schoolboy Popper betrays Aila’s father Joseph after he rescues him from bullies, which for inexplicable reasons causes the rescued boy to bear a lifelong grudge against Jospeh and the Mi’gMag people in general. It seems that we are to conclude that white people are just inherently, perversely evil, no point trying to explain or understand their behavior. To caricature the villain so one-dimensionally is just lazy. Frank Booth was more relatable than Popper. It isn’t impossible to create memorably despicable villains who nonetheless resemble human beings: think of Schindler’s List‘s Amon Goethe, who is recognizably fallible and human without ever becoming sympathetic. Popper should be a boss villain who gets offed (accompanied by a quotable one-liner) by Arnold Schwarzenegger in an action movie, not the antagonist a supposedly serious historical drama.
When real-life villainy doesn’t seem quite real, the story has failed. Some histrionics from a drunken Joseph at his wife’s grave and brutal slow-motion beatings designed to boil our blood don’t help. On the plus side, Devery Jacobs is fantastic, always quiet and dignified, and there’s an outside chance that Ghouls could play the same kind of role in her future career that Winter’s Bone did for Jennifer Lawrence. The camera, sound and general technical elements are all excellent. There is clearly a ton of talent on display from debuting director Jeff Barnaby and his young cast, which made it all the more upsetting to me that the story, historically based as it is, failed to ring true. My opinion matters little, however, as Ghouls hits the bullseye for its target audience, while remaining invisible to the outside world.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Rhymes is not always logical in its quasi-mythic, circular narrative… Barnaby puts a mythic frame around a grim history, shaping it in a way that feels always like a creative adventure, not a duty.”–Liam Lacey, The Globe and Mail (contemporaneous)