- Monkey Beach
- Directed by Loretta Todd
- Written by Johnny Darrell, Andrew Duncan and Loretta Todd, based on the novel by Eden Robinson
- Starring Grace Dove, Joel Oulette and Adam Beach
- Classification 14A; 105 minutes
Independent films – which in Canada means, basically, “films” – are produced through two opposing forces: good intentions and limited resources. Occasionally, a filmmaker breaks through the constraints of the latter to make something emblematic of the former. But so many times, the resulting movie just ... exists.
So after a decade of development and assuredly much hard labour and love, Monkey Beach is now here, existing. I sincerely wish that I could say Loretta Todd’s drama, adapted from the acclaimed novel by Eden Robinson, is something to savour and cherish. Something more. But for reasons that become obvious not five minutes in, the film misses its opportunities for impact.
Streamlining Robinson’s novel, Todd and her co-writers focus Monkey Beach’s story on Lisa (Grace Dove), a sort of prodigal daughter who returns to her Haisla territory home in Kitamaat Village, B.C., after seeking shelter from various demons in Vancouver. Once reunited with her family, Lisa must contend with a restless brother Jimmy (Joel Oulette), who she is convinced faces mortal danger, her distant parents, the ghost of her dead cousin (Sera-Lys McArthur) and the memories of a land that both entranced and terrified her as a child.
Monkey Beach’s script attempts to cover a lot of territory – not only Lisa’s relationship with her family, but the lingering trauma facing her entire community – never managing to nail down any one narrative or thematic strand.
Instead, the film works best when Todd is able to slow things down and lock her film with quiet, intense scenes between Lisa and two of the film’s best-drawn characters – the itchy Jimmy and the roguish Uncle Mick (Adam Beach). Both foils provide essential tension to the film, grating against Lisa in a way that illuminates her character rather than drowning her out.
Regrettably, these interactions constitute a small portion of the proceedings, with Todd struggling in every other area, including wince-inducing attempts to portray Monkey Beach’s more fantastical elements. (This is mostly a budgetary concern, although there are ways to dive into the spirituality of Robinson’s work without breaking the bank, as CBC’s Trickster adaptation demonstrated.)
Stopping for a moment, there is slightly more about the film to admire: Dove’s natural on-screen presence, the care that Todd took in filming Kitamaat, the performances of Beach and Oulette (the latter of whom is coincidentally also the star of Trickster). But when a movie truly hits, you shouldn’t have to stop and puzzle out ways to be generous. Monkey Beach is not the gift its filmmakers hoped it might be.
Monkey Beach is now available to stream on Crave
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.