Rhymes For Young Ghouls is a tale of revenge set within the context of
Canada's Residential School era- during which older generations of
Indians faced systematic oppression from the state, stemming from
policies that was effectively genocidal. Today's indigenous communities
are still reeling from the effects of such policies (one of which is
cited in the opening of the film) today.
Their collective experience is summed up in a quote made by the film's
main character- Aila- who says, "This is what brings my people
together...the art of forgetfulness," when speaking about the tendency
for members of their community to become reliant upon drugs and alcohol
as an escape from the traumatic memories that were consequential of
white subjugation. A theme that is confronted throughout the film.
Rhymes For Young Ghouls is Mi'kmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby's freshman
feature (having two short films already to his credit)- and he's done a
damn fine job with it. On top of writing and directing this emotional
roller-coaster, he also recorded the original score himself (playing a
number of instruments in the process). His talents are clearly
The film tells the story of an extended M'ikmaq family, from the Red
Crow Rez, who are persistently harassed by a sadistically racist Indian
Agent named Popper (Mark Krupa). The Father is played by Glen Gould,
the uncle is played by Brandon Oakes, and the main character, Aila, is
played by the truly stunning Devery Jacobs (who was looking drop dead
sexy in her dress at TIFF).
It all begins when Aila's brother is accidentally killed during a drunk
driving incident. Feeling responsible, Aila's mother is unable to cope
with the grief and ends up committing suicide. Her father is then
arrested for the murder, and a 10-year old Aila is left to fend for
The film then fast forwards to Aila's teenage years. She is no longer a
little girl. Rather, the head of a relatively successful drug dealing
operation. Aila runs and organizes everything: buying weed from the
town's old woman, employing her friends to make the deals, and making
sure the "truancy taxes" are paid off to the Indian Agents each month.
If these truancy taxes are not paid accordingly, the kids will find
themselves "disappeared" into the Residential School system.
Aila and her friends are constantly under the watchful eye of Popper, a
racist Indian Agent who exploits every given oppourtunity to violently
beat and extort them. In the Q&A Krupa said he based the Popper
character off of Ude from Schindler's List...but he's more reminiscent
of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, if you ask me. Really over the top, in
a dramatically sadistic sense.
Popper is always using COINTELPRO tactics against the Native community
in an attempt to turn them against one another. The plot derives from
an incident where Popper robs and beats a boy named Milch- one of the
local kids that works for Aila. He seizes all of Milch's dope and
money- the money they need to re-up and pay off their truancy taxes.
Popper's hatred of Aila hearkens back to his relationship with her
father, Joseph. Popper and Joseph went to Residential School together.
There was an instance where Popper was getting picked on by two of the
other students, before Joseph intervened and knocked the kids out.
Despite saving him, Joseph was set to be punished by the Priest- and
Popper was tasked with carrying out the actual beating. And ever
since...he's seemed to have it out for Joseph.
Following the incident with Milch, Aila- with help from her little
buddy on the inside- develops a plan to break into the school, steal
their money back, and reap vengeance on Popper- who really deserves his
comeuppance after stomping her face.
However, before the crew gets the chance to put their plan into action,
Joseph is released from jail. Which triggers a number of bizarre
occurrences- including the return of Aila's zombie mother and brother
(meant to leave you reflecting on the post-colonial Native American
experience). This culminates with Joseph being beaten and re-arrested-
for taking a boat out on the water during a ban- and Aila being thrown
into the Residential School system.
Lucky for her, her little buddy helps her escape- and the crew are able
to put their plan into action. After smoking a joint first, of course.
Dawned in masks the group break into the school, seek to free Aila's
dad, and pull off their hilarious revenge plot directed at Popper.
But the obsessive psychopath that he is, Popper isn't able to laugh it
off. Instead, he comes back for them wielding a shotgun, hellbent on
raping Aila. I won't reveal how it all goes down, but I will say that
the film has an explosive conclusion which had the audience cheering at
the TIFF screening I attended.
The film provides commentary on a number of social issues that
currently affect our Native communities: such as alcoholism, drug
addiction, depression, suicide, and the reeling effects stemming from
the destruction of their culture. Though, it does seem to lay the blame
for many of these problems- at least partially- at the feet of both
parties (if I read it correctly).
When all is said and done, Rhymes For Young Ghouls is a really
excellent film. It's funny, stylish and exciting, yet utterly
disturbing and really sad at parts. Barnaby has managed to fashion a
story that is set 50-60 years ago with a modern vibe that will appeal
to mainstream audiences. I really feel that this film can be enjoyed by
a diverse crowd of people, if given a chance. It would be nice to see
it get distribution into some Canadian theatres. Highly recommended!
7.5 out 10.