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Theme Tuesday - Indigenous Voices - Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013)

For April 2018, I will be exploring films that feature indigenous people in leading roles and feature narratives about the identity of such people and the society that has inevitably oppressed them.


Aila is a tough cookie. She has to be. She grew up on the Red Crow reserve, raised by her uncle, but really fending for herself most of the time, selling drugs. Her dad is in prison after her mom accidentally ran over her younger brother with a car while both were on drugs. Her mother took her own life soon after. To avoid being sent to the state-run schools, which were notorious for their abuse of young native students, she bribes a corrupt official named Popper, who had actually known her father when they both went to school. Even though her father Joseph had tried to help Popper, he had spurned him, and now Popper wreaks havoc on Aila and the other youth on the reservation.

While the above is certainly not a cheery set-up for a movie, Rhymes for Young Ghouls is a solid piece of unsentimental, clear-eyed entertainment. It plays more like a revenge genre picture rather than some heavy melodrama, although the material certainly could have warranted the latter. The movie is quite clearly on the side of the natives, even if they are engaged in questionable and dangerous activities. Director Jeff Barnaby makes it very clear that the misery seen on screen is systemic and that the characters are making the best of a horrendous situation. There are also moments of humor, especially with Aila’s colorful (and usually stoned) friends. A scene where they break into the school could have been straight out of The Goonies.

In my very limited experience of films featuring indigenous subjects, these films tend to focus on how the disenfranchisement that these people endure has eroded every aspect of society. This film treats those subjects - the poverty exacerbated by drugs, the eroding sense of masculinity, the victimhood of people who are still essentially powerless - in a firmly realistic manner that at the same time does not come off as heavy-handed. All the performances were excellent, but special props have to go to Glen Gould who plays Aila’s father Joseph. He wears his perceived failure as a father like a leaden weight, and you can’t help feeling weary with him. And Kawennahare Devery Jacobs plays Aila with great sympathy even when she has to be the hardest teenager you’ve ever seen with street smarts to spare.

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