Adam Beach appears in only a handful of scenes of Monkey Beach, but he leaves such an impression, you’re convinced he was on screen longer.
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Adam Beach only appears in only a handful of scenes of Monkey Beach as protagonist Lisa’s (Grace Dove) Uncle Mick, but he leaves such a lasting impression, you’re convinced he must have been on screen longer. Uncle Mick is a residential school survivor, world traveler, rebel, and doting uncle, and Beach constantly layers Mick’s anger, trauma, kindness, and political awareness into his performance. Beach has so much natural charisma that you wonder how he hasn’t been cast in absolutely everything. That charisma is so perfect here because Mick looms larger than life in Lisa’s memory, and in Beach’s hands, you feel that larger than life charisma, his warmth, as well as how broken he is.
We first meet Mick in a flashback to Lisa’s childhood. They’re in Lisa’s principal’s office, where he’s been called in as her temporary guardian because she’s in trouble. We learn quickly that Mick doesn’t take settler colonial authority seriously when he turns a disciplinary meeting into a bonding moment with Lisa, almost entirely ignoring the principal. Seated opposite the principal, he turns to Lisa in mock outrage, parsing out his words, to ask, “Lisa, have you been beating up boys again?” On learning that she used ‘The F word’ while repeating lyrics from “Fuck the opressors,” he laughs, pulls down his fist in victory as he look at her with a proud grin, before turning back to the principal to explain, “I taught her that song.” He then turns to give her five. Every time the principal says something, he turns to Lisa conspiratorially, taking up more space, grinning at her, letting her know he’s on her side.
Though “fuck the oppressors” is one of the scenes of the year, it’s the scene from Lisa’s childhood by the campfire on Monkey Beach, her whole family gathered, where Beach is at his best. He’s arguing with one of Lisa’s aunts about the trauma and legacy of residential schools, brusque but quiet, his face full of pain and tension, and his eyes shining. Remembering the horrors he faced, he enunciates, speaks slowly enough that the children can understand without looking at them, head tilted with frustration that the other adults won’t acknowledge what he’s talking about and keep trying to stop the conversation. His unwillingness to drop it for some time, looking each of the adults he talks to in the eye, belies just how emotionally affected he is, while keeping his voice relatively controlled. But as soon as his brother, Lisa’s dad, tells him, “Now is not the time,” to wait until the children are older, he immediately silences. His anger and frustration can be seen in how he stares intently at the fire, fidgeting with his fingers, tense with anger as he closes his body, when he’s usually so open and laid back.
Tensions run high between the adults, and the children are visibly concerned so he looks at them with care, worried he’s scared them. When his nephew, Jimmy, points out that he’s burnt his marshmallow, he replies, “I like it like that,” almost like a teenager sulking. But he turns it around in a second, biting into it with a smile, looking briefly at Jimmy to reassure him. He then tries to recover, bringing the mood back up and changing topics to how nice it is where they are. When Lisa rests her head on his shoulder, and he welcomes her, we feel the strength of their bond.
Monkey Beach played theatrically in Canada earlier this year, and will be available to stream on Crave in 2021. It is still seeking distribution in the Us and UK.
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