Set in 1976 on a Mi’kmaq reserve, writer-director Jeff Barnaby’s already acclaimed, Canadian Film Centre-produced feature debut is a sort of cinematic trickster. Barnaby, a talented young filmmaker of aboriginal descent, presents his audience with what is explicitly intended to be an unsentimental, unflinching vision of the horrors of life within the residential school system and First Nations reserves generally. Those with no first-hand experience of this woeful chapter in Canadian history are compelled to accept Barnaby’s vision as authoritative, and the brutality he employs as necessary and even noble. Yet Rhymes For Young Ghouls problematizes our response by adopting what increasingly feels like a chic cynicism for cynicism’s sake, replete with one-dimensional, grotesque villains and a lazily conceived plot that slides ever-deeper into pulpy, comic book terrain, the final act riddled with nonsensical twists that read above all as convenient ways to ramp up the sleaze and violence.
During the opening flashbacks, Aila (Kawennahere Devery Jacobs) loses her brother to a sad, stupid, booze-fueled accident, her mother to suicide, and her father Joseph (Glen Gould) to prison. As the present-tense story unfolds, Aila, now a tough teenager, has taken over her father’s drug dealing business, along with her apocalypse-obsessed Uncle Burner (Brandon Oakes). Through voice-over and montage, Aila functions as our tour guide through the inferno of the Red Crow reserve, detailing sundry abuses at the hands of the reservation agents, in-fighting between “red trash Indians,” internal politics, bad health, absence of opportunities and irresolvable debt. “Indians don’t understand money,” is one of her many cold, flat declarations. Prominent amidst her on-going sociological diagnosis is, of course, a rundown of substances indulged in, itemizing the variety of high-potency weed she sells to most everyone in the community. “This is what brings my people together,” she says, “the art of forgetfulness.” The story eventually shifts into a more active mode once the ill-humoured Joseph is released from prison, interfering with Aila’s business, prompting increased attention from the nefarious Agent Popper (Mark Antony Krupa), and leading to Aila’s detention and eventual elaborate, faeces-infested revenge against Popper and the residential school.
Barnaby proves himself a strong craftsman from the start, most especially in the steady rhythms of his editing and deft incorporation of a mostly blues-driven soundtrack, and in his use of composition, which transforms cluttered, junk-laden, overgrown living spaces into dark autumnal burrows of resignation and despair. Yet, rather uncharacteristically for a CFC production, Barnaby’s script seems wildly under-examined. The story at times feels like a hasty repurposing of the basic ingredients of Winter’s Bone, though the model for the film’s overall ugly-flamboyant tone is clearly Quentin Tarantino—not necessarily an ideal model when dealing with fraught history. (The mishmash of formal, episodic detours is also very Tarantino: Aila is a gifted illustrator, and there’s a handsome, vaguely relevant animated sequence intended to bring Aila’s notebooks to life, though its contemporary style feels much more the product of Barnaby’s imagination than Aila’s.) Barnaby is a filmmaker to watch, and, given its subject matter and irreverent approach, Rhymes For Young Ghouls is very much worth mulling over and will likely endure as something of a milestone, but its also reckless, its narrative sloppy and its aspirations toward representation dubious.