Kuessipan sneaks up on you. For awhile it feels like a familiar story of race and class and wanting freedom from the confines of family and community as you teeter on the precipice of adulthood.
But then it pulls you in to the unique push and pull of an Innu community in Quebec and the realities of being a young woman in a world that gives you few choices. It’s an astounding first feature by Myriam Verreault.
Mikuan (Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine) and Shaniss (Yamie Grégoire) have always been best friends and this often involved Mikuan helping her friend survive childhood neglect and abuse. As young adults, their lives seem to be taking different paths. Shaniss has a baby with local petty-criminal and hot-head Greg (Douglas Grégoire), who is wanted by the police for a violent assault. Mikuan comes from a more stable family and, although she has everything she needs, they balk at supporting her dreams to move away to college ‘off reservation’. When Mikuan falls for a white guy, well-meaning Francis (Étienne Galloy) who is pretty clueless about his privilege, this seems to Shaniss like a betrayal of culture and their friendship.
What makes this film work so well is the secondary nature of the main narrative, which sometimes feels like it has very familiar beats. We understand coming-of-age, clash of cultures and the inequities of class but Kuessipan, which means ‘your turn’ in Innu, immerses us in the strange, harsh and warm world of an Innu community where so much lovely and resonant detail is contained in the periphery.
It also centres around the voice of two young women and the poetry of Mikuan, which weaves in and out as a narration and adds a lyrical beauty and pathos to the story. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Naomi Fontaine and you get the feeling that this is the poetic source and what makes the story about more than a child spreading her wings.
Mikuan and her brother Metshu (Cédrick Ambroise) sum up Mikuan’s dilemma; “You think too much”, he says. “You don’t think enough”, she replies. And this is at the heart of the rift that separates her from Shaniss – should she stay and strengthen a culture that is being destroyed or leave to find something more? The final scenes are what took this film from good to great for me and it was unexpected. You realise that it’s about more than you have assumed and it feels like the authentic voice of women and First Nations.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.