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BEANS: 4 STARS. “a breakout performance, in a piece of important, vital cinema.”

“Beans,” the directorial debut from “Anne with an E” and “Mohawk Girls” producer Tracey Deer is the story of Tekehentahkhwa, a 12-year-old Mohawk girl, nicknamed Beans, during the violent 78-day standoff between two Mohawk communities and government forces during the 1990 Oka Crisis.

The film begins with a scene that sets the theme for the film. Tekehentahkhwa (Kiawentiio) and her mom Lily (Rainbow Dickerson) are meeting with the head mistress of a tony Montreal school called the Queen Heights Academy. When the interviewer has a tough time pronouncing her name, Tekehentahkhwa, eager to please, blurts out that everyone calls her Beans. It’s the first indication of the subversion of the tween’s true identity, but it won’t be the last in this riveting study of a girl finding her place in the world.

In the larger world a stand-off is brewing between a group of Mohawk people and the town of Oka, Quebec who plan on building a golf course on sacred burial grounds. News footage from the 1990 conflict fills in the details but Deer tells her story from the POV of Beans and her family as they cope with racism, a dwindling food supply and the influx of police and barbed-wire fencing in their community.

Refused service by local grocers and terrorized by angry mobs—“If you don’t want us your land, don’t come to ours!”—Beans, her sister Ruby (Violah Beauvais) and mother make their way home, only to be attacked by raging townsfolk who hurl rocks at their car.

Beans falls in with a group of older kids, led by April (Paulina Alexis), a tough talking teenager who teaches the younger girl how to access her fighting spirit and survive amid the crisis.

“Beans” is the story of a youngster forced by circumstance to grow up fast. She absorbs influences from her parents, who have differing views on her educational needs, her new friends, crisis and, above all, uses her intuition to become the person she needs to be. Deer ties things together with a closing shot that simply and beautifully captures the full extent of Tekehentahkhwa’s journey.

The search for identity is not a new concept in coming-of-age films but the First Nations context here, combined with Kiawentiio’s breakout performance, make “Beans” important, vital cinema.

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