When Vancouver director Meredith Hama-Brown’s debut feature, Seagrass, recently won the prestigious FIPRESCI Prize, it reinforced B.C.’s reputation as a hotbed for talented young filmmakers. Awarded at prestigious festivals by international critics, the prize aims “to promote film-art and to encourage new and young cinema”.
There’s a reason why the Féderation Internationale de la Press Cinématographique selected Seagrass at the Toronto International Film Festival. Simply put, it’s an astoundingly deep and multi-layered examination of the impact of a troubled mixed-race marriage on not only the husband and wife, but also their two biracial children.
The Vancouver International Film Festival will present the B.C. premiere at the Rio Theatre on Friday (September 29).
Set in the mid-1990s on an island retreat, Seagrass shows, rather than tells, how a disintegrating relationship creates ripples of instability. The mother, Judith (Ally Maki), struggles with the recent loss of her mother, who was one of 22,000 Japanese Canadians incarcerated in the 1940s. But her often insensitive white husband Steve (Luke Roberts) isn’t emotionally equipped to deal with the situation.
Layered on top of that is the intergenerational trauma resulting from what happened to Judith’s mother and her relatives. It’s a potent mix and Hama-Brown deserves credit for tackling such a complex subject.
This is a B.C. story for the ages and will no doubt stand the test of time. It’s thanks not only to Hama-Brown’s subtle script but also Norm Li’s gorgeous cinematography showcasing Gabriola Island and the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island.
Actors bring Seagrass story to life
Then there are the standout acting performances. Maki is simply marvelous in demonstrating how epiphanies about one’s spouse can change the very nature of subsequent interactions. While her character evolves in one direction, the previously mild-mannered Steve sometimes reacts with belligerence and hostility as he attempts to preserve the status quo.
This dynamic creates an almost centrifugal force, accelerating in velocity and heightening the tension as this gentle film unfolds.
Meanwhile, Seagrass also depicts an equally complex dynamic between the two daughters, Stephanie and Emmy, played by Nyha Huang Breitkreuz and Remy Marthaller, respectively. These characters face their own individual challenges and cope with the loss of their grandmother in radically different ways.
Like real-life siblings, the older one sometimes acts as a protector but on other occasions belittles the younger sister—and the two child actors’ chemistry makes their relationship utterly believable.
If I had any quibble with the film, it came in the group therapy sessions, which struck me as a little forced. But I quickly got over that as I became mesmerized by the central characters’ journeys.
Watch a clip from Seagrass.
Then there are the microaggressions that some of them endure. Harvard University psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce coined the term microaggression in 1970. However, it didn’t enter the popular lexicon until the 2000s, thanks to Columbia University psychology professor and author Derald Wing Sue.
As a result, as Hama-Brown recently pointed out on CBC Radio One, there wasn’t any language in the 1990s to describe subtle forms of disparagement that left racialized people feeling othered and ostracized. In Seagrass, Judith and Stephanie, in particular, are left to process these slights without any easy way to categorize them.
Another key character at the retreat, Pat (Chris Pang), helps address Judith’s lack of historical insight about the history of Japanese Canadians in B.C. He also plays a critical role in triggering another character’s latent racism. Sadly, many of us are capable of committing racist acts, even when we don’t think we feel any racism in our hearts. This is particularly so when we’re feeling stressed. That’s another lesson in this wise and compelling film.
The Vancouver International Film Festival will present Seagrass at 9 p.m. on September 29 at the Rio Theatre. It will offer a second screening at 9 p.m. on October 1 at the SFU Goldcorp Theatre. For tickets visit the VIFF website. The festival runs from September 28 to October 8. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.