‘Beans’ review: Compelling coming-of-age story and history lesson in one

Kiawentiio in "Beans." Screenshot: YouTube.

"Beans" is a dual coming-of-age story and history lesson, and both halves of this compelling and emotionally affecting film are well-done. 

Filmmaker Tracey Deer revisits her childhood and the Kanesatake Resistance of 1990 in an accessible film that makes tangible the rightful motivations of the Mohawk people. And in a warm, emotive lead performance, actress Kiawentiio takes the audience along the process of growing from a child to whom things happen to a teenager aware of their surroundings, capable of making their own choices and intentional about how they interpret the world around them. 

In the summer of 1990, Mohawk girl Tekehentahkhwa (Kiawentiio), nicknamed Beans, lives with her mother Lily (Rainbow Dickerson), father Kania’tariio (Joel Montgrand) and younger sister Ruby (Violah Beauvais) on the Mohawk reserve of Kahnawá:ke, Quebec. 

She is caught between her parents’ differing expectations. Lily wants Beans to attend the private academy where she works as an executive assistant, hoping that a good education will prepare her for a life off the reserve. Kania’tariio bristles against the idea that Beans needs to attend a school that caters to white or French people to have a better life, and instead worries that Beans isn’t ready for how cruel the world can be. 

"Pumpkin, you need to toughen up," he says, and his words sink into his daughter. 

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Beans is a little bit softer than the other teens living on the reserve, in particular April (Paulina Alexis), the crop top-wearing, fluently cursing young woman who mocks Beans for her outfits and for her close relationship with Ruby, and who seems to know things about boys that Beans doesn’t. 

But whatever their differences are, the girls—and everyone else on the reserve—are united against the nearby town of Oka, the citizens of which are planning the expansion of a golf course into Mohawk land. It makes little difference to the town that the land holds a graveyard, and that it is only a scrap of the vast country that once belonged to the First Nations. 

Oka’s people want the land; the government is supporting them, and the conflict has long simmered. That is, until it eventually explodes, resulting in violence and a standoff. 

The Mohawk claim the bridge between their land and Oka, refusing the passage of any non-Indigenous people. The Oka enlist the support of the Canadian authorities and army. Food deliveries slow to a crawl. People begin to lose their jobs. Deer thoughtfully incorporates real news footage from that time, raising the stakes with every transitional scene. Those contemporaneous broadcasts and interviews contextualize the frustrations and pent-up anger on the part of the Mohawk community, and the casual racism and persistent cruelty from the Québécois.

"You make damn sure this doesn’t turn into Cowboys and Indians," Lily tells Kania’tariio as he heads to the protest in its early days, but "Beans" also argues that the tension has always been there, with one side obviously and repetitively at fault.

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Beans takes this all in, and the film follows the character as she forms opinions and reactions of her own. She begins to consider the police as antagonists rather than allies once she sees them point their guns at Mohawk women. She distrusts the idea of the private school after she experiences a horrible moment of discrimination at the town grocery store. 

And after she befriends April in the film’s most meaningful relationship, she begins to experiment with more revealing clothes, makeup and boys, liking how all of that makes her feel more in control of her own life. In typical teen fashion, Beans acts out once she grows a little older—but "Beans" deliberately links these choices back to the character’s understanding of self-defense. 

Kiawentiio’s performance isn’t always nuanced, but she brings an engaging exuberance to her character. Her transformation from a wide-smiling, open-hearted child to someone a little more wary and a lot more angry is effective, and certain scenes are standouts. 

Beans and Ruby collecting dozens of golf balls from among the Mohawk graves is an early gut punch. Beans’ shock at herself when she curses unintentionally, and then her delight as she practices those vulgarities in the mirror, is both playful and sobering. And the film’s opening and closing scenes thoughtfully bookend this character’s journey in a way that communicates the difference between making a choice to appease others and making a choice to honor yourself. 

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"Beans" incorporates elements that might require explanations for younger viewers or a warning for certain audiences: a moment of self-harm, an attempt at sexual assault, a discussion of familial abuse. But Deer maneuvers those components so they never feel exploitative; instead, they are an acknowledgment that certain traumas take years, and maybe even generations, to heal. 

That thoughtfulness, in addition to the ensemble’s strong performances and the film’s important historical lens, make "Beans" a true family-friendly watch. 

On Demand and in select theaters. Not rated. 92 minutes. Dir: Tracey Deer. Featuring: Kiawentiio, Violah Beauvais, Rainbow Dickerson, Joel Montgrand, Paulina Alexis, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai. "Beans" was reviewed out of the 2021 Virginia Film Festival.

About the writer: Roxana Hadadi is a film, television, and pop culture critic. She is a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and the Online Film Critics Society, and is a Tomatometer-approved Top Critic on Rotten Tomatoes.

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