Jeff Barnaby's Rhymes for Young Ghouls lightens up tragedy

Filmmaker Jeff Barnaby shocks with a hilarious, swaggering residential-school tale.
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Rhymes for Young Ghouls will blow your expectations away. The tale of a 15-year-old drug dealer surviving grotesque family tragedy and the residential-school system on a hellish Mi’kmaq reserve in the ’70s? Sounds like the kind of worthy Canadian filmmaking that sucks up grant money, but writer-director Jeff Barnaby had other ideas for his film.

In a call to the Georgia Straight from Toronto, Barnaby insists he always intended to make “a popcorn movie”.

“I think it’s just an aesthetic that I gravitate to,” the filmmaker says. “Cronenberg’s earlier stuff? Black Christmas? All those really crazy, really crazy, really crazy Canadian movies? What happened to that? Canadian cinema: great on the drama, not very good at entertaining people in the way that Fast and the Furious will entertain somebody.”

In reality, Barnaby gets to have it both ways with his shocking, hilarious, swaggering debut feature, opening Friday (February 14), which made the Toronto International Film Festival’s annual list of Canada’s top 10 films. He grew up on the Listuguj reserve in Quebec, born into a family of what he calls, in the film’s media notes, “seasoned alcoholics”. His mother tried to commit suicide while she was carrying him, and it’s not too hard to spot the quasi-biographical detail in the film’s ghastly opening moments.

Out of this disastrous scenario emerges the smart, sensitive, artistically inclined Aila (Devery Jacobs). When the film flashes forward 14 years, she’s helping her Uncle Burner (Brandon Oakes) run her dad’s drug business while he cools his jets in jail. She manages to stay out of the looming residential school on the hill by paying off sadistic Indian agent Popper (Mark Antony Krupa)—but only for so long.

Aila is Barnaby, right? “That’s exactly where I got it from,” he says, adding that his own dad was absent, while his uncle “couldn’t be bothered. Or, more to the point, they didn’t really know what to do because I was just…different. For me, it was almost like a dirty secret that I liked to write poetry or I liked to draw as much as I did.”

In the end, Barnaby was “raised by women” as he was bounced between foster homes, aunts, and grandmothers. He identifies creativity as “a very female energy”, which might help to explain how he’s fashioned a film that seems uniquely suspended between art and exploitation, with characters as nuanced as Burner—he’s as soulful as he is repellent—and as exaggerated as Popper.

Barnaby wraps it all up with a shrewdly mixed soundtrack of Mississippi hill-country blues and his own score, recorded over four days while he had the flu. Now we know where the film’s fevered tone comes from.

“We had a harp, my banjo, stand-up bass, keyboard, hand drum, and I was like, ‘All right, we gotta do something with this. We don’t have time to fuck around, ’cause we’re premiering at TIFF in two weeks,’ ” he recalls with a laugh. Sounds like a blast! “It was! I was able to not really think about it, which is the greatest way to create stuff. We just grinded it out.”

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