Published Jan 30, 2014Exhibiting a vivid eye for potent imagery and a striking sense of the downtrodden vitriol characterizing this slice of historically-derived Canadian horror, Rhymes For Young Ghouls is a powerful and assured debut for Jeff Barnaby.
This by turns gritty, sardonic drama begins with a reminder of a few of the more abhorrent legal provisions granted to truant officers to aid the enforced, mandatory attendance at residential schools for all natives — it wasn't the Borg that came up with "you will be assimilated"; we have the church to blame for that.
Suitably informed about the daily stakes facing residents of the Red Crow reservation (among many others across our country), we're armed with an understanding of the palpable anxiety and dejection shrouding the populace. However, amongst those trying to forget or dull the pain of the wholesale rape of their culture with drink and drugs are those just trying to survive.
Young Aila (Kawennahere Devery Jacobs) belongs to a generation to which subjection has always been a fact of life — the proud legacy of her people only lives on in the stories the elders share. Most of the middle-aged, like her father, are too angry or, like her uncle, too lazy and defeated to be actively involved in the oral tradition of folkloric philosophising that preserves the wisdom of their people.
It's her boss (an elderly pot grower), of sorts, and, in a roundabout way, her mother's art that connect her to the sense of cultural pride she subconsciously uses to fuel her desires to flout authority. Forced to grow up far too fast due to the untimely death of her mother and incarceration of her father, Aila makes enough money to pay off the truant officers that run the reservation like a pack of God's zealous thugs.
Most of the story unfolds following her father's release from prison. In an explosive performance by Glen Gould, her dad (Joseph) is a powder keg of rage and his rather noisy homecoming attracts the attention of a particularly loathsome truant officer with which he has a long, unfriendly history.
Bridging folk and modern lore, Barnaby uses the macabre image of the undead — Aila is visited by visions of her zombified mother and brother — to represent the shambling corpse of a people being systematically stripped of their way of life. An effective symbol, it's used sparingly enough so as not to become a crutch or lose potency.
As our strong, young heroine negotiates her father's volatile grief and organizes a plan to get back at her oppressors, Barnaby paints a potent, unsentimental, but affectionate picture of reservation life in the late '70s, one full of mutated vestiges of superstition, drug-induced stupefaction and an intense need for the momentary catharsis created by futile expressions of anarchistic protest.
It may be a little rough around the edges, but Rhymes For Young Ghouls is a tremendously rousing film that announces the arrival of an exciting new voice in Canadian cinema.