Throughout filmmaker Jeff Barnaby’s richly imaginative new feature film, Rhymes for Young Ghouls, the narrator, a 15-year-old native girl named Aila (Kawennahere Devery Jacobs) tells her story as a kind of manual for survival. The deck has been stacked against her: Aila’s mother hanged herself after the accidental death of Aila’s younger brother, and her father has been in jail ever since.
But Aila is not only surviving and thriving. Working with her deadbeat Uncle Burner (Brandon Oakes), she has emerged as an entrepreneurial force to be reckoned with on her local reserve. She’s a pot dealer, rolling gourmet joints in more flavours and styles than Starbucks does coffee. Some of the earnings go to pay a monthly under-the-table “truancy task” to the local Indian agent, Popper (Mark Antony Krupa) to keep Aila out of horror-house residential school, St. D.’s.
A pedantic nitpick: Aila does not, in fact, speak in rhymes; the film should probably be called Rules for Young Ghouls, which would rhyme. But let’s just say that Rhymes is not always logical in its quasi-mythic, circular narrative. The evasiveness is understandable: The subject is the decades-long trauma wrought by the Indian Act and the residential school system that saw native children taken from their parents, a practice so incomprehensibly cruel that it seems like one of the harsher Old Testament edicts.
Barnaby’s approach is far from the kind of damning docudramas (The Boys of St. Vincent, Butterbox Babies) that became a Canadian specialty in the nineties. This is a supernatural teenage caper film, with a thread of doper humour – the kind of movie young moviegoers actually pay to see.
In realistic terms, the year is 1976, and life on the fictional Red Crow Mi’gMaq reserve revolves around a few locations. There’s Aila’s fortress home with its sprawling verandas, where she sells grass at the wild parties held every Friday night. There’s the nearby residential school, and the forest where Aila’s mother is buried in an unmarked grave. There’s the strip club called Fish Mittens (a slang term for vaginas), where many of the native men spend their money. And somewhere near, but unseen, is the prison. The soundtrack, avoiding seventies pops songs, relies instead on the rattle and moan of traditional Chicago and Delta blues.
Yet Rhymes for Young Ghouls is mostly a fable. The concept of time, for Aila, appears to be elastic: Her father has been gone “1,000 years.” Death is tragic but not necessarily permanent, as Aila’s mother’s periodic visitations indicate. Aila, like her late mother, is an artist, with a fondness for comic-book zombie drawings. In the film, these popular tales of the undead blend with native totem stories, demonstrated in an animated sequence about an insatiable wolf (the residential school) that devours Mi’gMaq children. Through various visual cues, we see how Aila, a self-styled young ghoul, has allied herself to the dead: When she sells dope at the Friday-night parties, she wears a skull-like gas mask to avoid inhaling the product. She also has an animal skull on the handlebars of her bicycle.
Director Barnaby has cited popular influences that include Dashiell Hammett’s novel of small-town corruption, Red Harvest, and the orphan-hero stories of Batman and Conan the Barbarian. But he goes deeper than that. There are also unmistakable references to Hamlet (“Vengeance,” demands Aila’s ghost mother) and The Odyssey. Like the Greek hero Odysseus, Aila’s father, Joseph (Glen Gould), returns home after seven years to find his house has been taken over by layabouts, whom he routs as a way of reclaiming his kingdom.
Joseph’s show of assertiveness sets in motion the action plot that forms the centre of Rhymes for Young Ghouls. His show of strength is a threat to Popper, the Indian Agent, who is determined to get Joseph and the community back under his control. Using Aila’s Uncle Burner as a paid informant, he raids the strip club and robs the month’s drug money from one of Aila’s sidekicks. That means she won’t be able to pay off the truancy tax, and risks ending up in the school where children are devoured. But Aila has other plans: On Halloween night, she and her cronies dress up in costumes (totemic animal outfits, though Aila goes as a ghoul) to break into the school, and risk incarceration while trying to steal their money back.
Rhymes for Young Ghouls was selected as one of Canada’s Top 10 films by a Toronto International Film Festival panel last year, and has generally been praised to the skies, though it would be a mistake to set expectations too high. This is a low-budget film, and both the action and supernatural sequences are roughly crafted. And the performances are uneven. “Dastardly” seems the only word to describe Popper, a composite of church sanctimony and legal venality in one melodramatic package, though he’s probably no worse than the evil vampire clan in the Twilight series.
Yet the praise is also justified for a movie that, in many ways, represents a milestone: A savvy native-Canadian genre film with a strong, beautiful and ingenious heroine whose courage helps right an injustice a lot more real than whatever Katniss is fighting for in The Hunger Games. At the same time, Barnaby puts a mythic frame around a grim history, shaping it in a way that feels always like a creative adventure, not a duty.