VIFF Review: ‘Monkey Beach’ offers gorgeous looks at both scenery and culture

Monkey Beach is an important Canadian novel. Winner of the Ethel Wilson Prize, it tells the story of a young Haisla woman who returns home to Kitamaat after her brother goes missing under mysterious circumstances. Upon her return, she begins to unravel her own past and examine the ancestral supernatural powers she has to communicate with spirits and the dead.

This is a premise that is ripe for adaptation, and the only surprising thing is that it hasn’t happened sooner. That it has happened now –with an all First Nations cast and a First Nations director– is for the better, though.

Director Loretta Sarah Todd has assembled a talented cast of performers, from relative newcomer Grace Dove to seasoned veterans like Adam Beach, Glen Gould, and Nathaniel Arcand. She also brought her keen eye for shot composition, and since she filmed the story on location there is no shortage of gorgeous vistas at which to point the camera.

Where the film struggles, for me, is that in the first two acts the performances and pacing are uneven. I can’t speak to why exactly, but it feels rushed. In the third act, in which the main character Lisa finally accepts who she is and what she needs to do, the film really picks up but the journey to get there is a little rough around the edges.

That’s not to say there aren’t bright spots. Adam Beach shines in his role as Lisa’s uncle, a survivor of the residential schools and staunch advocate for First Nations rights. The film itself is also an unabashedly a First Nations story and a look into Haisla culture and traditions –and their place in Canadian culture– that we don’t get to see depicted on screen very often.

Ultimately between the bright spots and the rough patches, Monkey Beach is not a film that I connected with, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t. It is also an important enough moment that I fully recommend that you take the time to watch and decide for yourself.

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