The Toronto International Film Festival has always been a champion of emerging filmmakers, and the 2020 edition of the festival proves to be no exception. With Violation and Beans, coming from Canadian filmmakers Madeleine Sims-Fewer/Dusty Mancinelli and Tracey Deer, respectively, the festival has programmed two films that examine traumatic experiences in vastly different ways. Both films are astounding for first features, which is likely an omen that these filmmakers will be returning to the festival in years to come.
Violation (Dusty Mancinelli, Madeleine Sims-Fewer)
Turning the revenge genre on its head isn’t easy, but Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli manage to do just that in their feature directorial debut, Violation. This is far from an easy film to watch, but that’s part and parcel for a narrative that takes a deep dive into the ramifications of trauma and abuse. As far as directorial debuts go, this is as impressive as it gets.
Serving double duties as both director and star of the film, Sims-Fewer plays Miriam, a woman on the verge of divorce who visits her sister (Anna Maguire) and brother-in-law (Jesse LaVercombe) in their secluded lakeside home. As a dark history of betrayal and abuse become apparent, the trip transforms into a lonesome journey of vengeance for Miriam.
Despite being a revenge story on paper, Violation doesn’t conform to the usual tropes and expectations that we’ve become accustomed to for films in this genre. In specific terms, Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli avoid any hints of gratification when acts of revenge are depicted on screen. In fact, there’s a sense of wretch that inhabits every vengeful decision that Miriam makes, and this boils over and forces the audience to question what revenge actually does to a person. In an almost refreshing way, revenge isn’t portrayed as entertaining and rouses more thoughtful and uncomfortable contemplation, rather than cheering applause.
Much of the film’s success comes from Sims-Fewer’s commanding performance, which is more impressive knowing she had to juggle this along with her directing responsibilities. The mental and physical strain of vengeance is written into every single facial reaction and body movement, and the camera never glances away from this. This is complemented by the film’s tonally appropriate atmosphere, where there’s a sense of distilled eeriness that lingers like a fog of unease. Things simply don’t feel right, and when fortunes change for the film’s many troubled characters, any transition in narration ends up feeling assured and natural.
Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli also work masterfully around elements of horror and suspense, while layering the narrative with a meditative examination of how revenge can ravage the mind, long after the act itself. And while this could have easily resulted in a muddled conglomerate of ideas, the final product is something that sticks to one’s skin with seeping effectiveness. Violation is a film that doesn’t shy away from being brutally honest, and in doing so, creates an immersive experience that will surely stay with audiences. This is truly a stunning debut from two very promising Canadian filmmakers.
Beans (Tracey Deer)
Creating cinematic experiences out of important historical incidents and adding layers of realized emotion to them has always been one of the greatest feats afforded by the medium. Canadian filmmaker Tracey Deer recounts a dark part of Indigenous history in her feature film directorial debut, Beans, and simply excels as a dramatic storyteller.
The film is set in 1990 Quebec, Canada, during a heated conflict between the government and two Mohawk communities (Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawá:ke) after a golf course was to be expanded onto sacred Indigenous ground. Members of the Mohawk communities banded together in protestation, triggering an oppositional response that reeked of xenophobia and hatred. Audiences live through these events by following Beans (breakout star, Kiawentiio), a 12-year old Mohawk girl, who navigates her own adolescence in the midst of this hateful crisis. The supporting cast includes solid performances from Rainbow Dickerson, Violah Beauvais and Paulina Jewel Alexis.
Beans has its fair share of unsettling moments, and Deer should be commended for depicting both the good and bad with such tenderness and poise. Reliving these past traumas through the lens of a child is never easy, but Deer manages to maintain a level of brutal honesty, without ever utilizing any overly exploitative imagery. Having lived through many of these experiences herself as a child likely informed the intensity and truthfulness of the film.
Lead actress Kiawentiio also shines as the titular character, who is featured in every single frame of the film and carries the narrative on her shoulders with striking confidence. As Beans’ innocence is slowly chipped away by the cruelty of the world around her, Kiawentiio’s transformation feels natural, with a real sense of purity in her performance that aligns perfectly with the character itself. This is far from an easy task for such a young actress, and her future could not be any brighter following this impressive performance.
A film like Beans is sure to be informative for many viewers, particularly those who have never heard about this unfortunate event in Canadian history. More importantly, Deer has created an avenue for audiences to experience the emotions and feelings that these Indigenous communities had to endure. It’s unfortunate that these emotions and feelings continue to be relevant (and accurate) in modern times, but that only makes the film all the more important. Not that we needed any convincing, but Deer makes a strong argument for why representation and culturally-specific storytelling needs to be a vital part of cinema.
Will you be seeing either of these directorial debuts when they become more widely available? Let us know in the comments below.
Violation and Beans had their world premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival.
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