Tracey Deer’s debut feature, Beans, begins and ends with the film’s 12-year-old Mohawk protagonist introducing herself to white people.
The contrasting scenes show the huge dramatic and personal journey that Tekehentahkhwa (nicknamed Beans) has travelled. But none of this would register without the committed, authentic performance by its young actor, Kiawentiio.
The film is a coming-of-age picture set against the 1990 Oka crisis, in which some of Quebec’s Indigenous communities faced off against police, the military, and citizens because of the proposed expansion of a golf course onto Mohawk burial grounds. Deer experienced the brutality and racism of the Oka crisis firsthand as a 12-year-old, something she obviously brought to the film.
“It was a huge help that it was Tracey’s story,” Kiawentiio says on a Zoom call from her home in Akwesasne, Ontario.
“But it was two-sided. I felt pressure because it was her story and I wanted to get it exactly right. But it was helpful because it was her experience and she could tell me exactly what she was feeling.”
The film recounts some horrific scenes. In one, Beans, her mother (Rainbow Dickerson), and sister (Violah Beauvais) are in a car when Québécois throw rocks through the windows.
“Tracey’s number-one priority was making us feel comfortable on-set,” the young actor says about those scenes.
“For the drivers in front of us, some of the actors driving had probably lived through it, too, or had family members affected by the crisis. Tracey didn’t want anybody to be retraumatized. Every time we would reset, the actors would cheer at us and smile, because they didn’t want us to think they were actually like the people they were portraying.”
In terms of emotional scenes, Deer helped lead Kiawentiio through the mix of feelings.
“She’d say to me, ‘Oh, and you’re so mad about this…and this…,’ ” the actor says. “She’d talk me through these emotions.”
Although only 14—she turns 15 at the end of the month—Kiawentiio, like the aspiring-artist character she plays, has many talents.
Besides acting—her breakthrough came when she was cast in the third season of Anne With an E—she’s also a visual artist and a singer-songwriter. She released her first EP, In My Head, last month. During the making of Beans, she wrote a song called “Light At The End”; the creative team was so impressed with it that they included it as the film’s closing-credits music.
She has a small role in the new sitcom Rutherford Falls, which begins airing on April 22. One of the highlights from that was meeting Indigenous actor Michael Greyeyes, whom she calls “nice and sweet and funny—a really cool role model.”
Although she’s busy as a Grade 10 student and isn’t sure what artistic practice to follow, she does have one acting fantasy.
“It would be a dream if I could work on Avatar: The Last Airbender,” she says. “I’m dying to be Katara.”
I google the character and learn about her fierce, heroic journey. Oh, yeah. It’ll happen.