Rhymes for Young Ghouls is an audacious debut
Starring Devery Jacobs. In English and Mi’kmaq, with English subtitles. Rated 18A.
As Canadians, we’re told to be proud of our stories. But certain stories take considerable courage to tell, and even some strength just to hear. That’s the case with Rhymes for Young Ghouls, an audacious feature debut for writer-director Jeff Barnaby.
Heavy with the atmosphere of coiled violence, the cleverly designed film is being pitched as a kind of horror flick. There are zombies, to be sure, on the fictional Red Crow Mi’kmaq Reservation (it was shot in southern Quebec), but they are really just ghostly remnants of traumas, both ancient and recent. Anyway, there’s plenty of evil still being meted out by the priests, nuns, and government agents in 1976, when much of this takes place. Not coincidentally, that’s the centennial year of the Indian Act, which mandated that all First Nations children be systematically stripped of their cultures—with sexual and other abuses along for a free ride.
Trying to step around this chasm of hellfire is 15-year-old Aila (impressive newcomer Devery Jacobs), left parentless in the disturbing opening sequence but now pursuing her artistic ambitions while running a profitable drug concession. This is encouraged by her uncle (Brandon Oakes), a gentle, longhaired soul content to just get high and float through his days. But things are shaken up when Aila’s dad (Glen Gould—not the pianist) emerges from a long stretch in prison, full of ferocity and triggering a new wave of terror from a hopped-up Indian agent called Popper (Mark Antony Krupa).
Underscored by bluesy tunes ranging from Mississippi Fred McDowell to the Black Keys, the movie is handled with grim wit and visual flair (including an animated sequence). Its unrelieved pile-up of harsh confrontations, bad memories, weird dreams, and grisly ultra-violence is a lot to absorb in 85 minutes. But between Jacobs’s arresting performance and Barnaby’s obvious talent as a storyteller, the listener is at least left with some small spirit of hope.