RHYMES FOR YOUNG GHOULS (2013) was the first of two features by writer/director Jeff Barnaby. I didn’t know about him until I saw his really good 2019 zombie movie BLOOD QUANTUM, at which point I was excited to follow this new director who was around my age and seemed real interesting in interviews. Tragically that was his last film – he died of cancer last month. That’s a real damn shame, but I encourage you to check out his small body of work. He’s got a real interesting perspective as a guy whose politics grew from seeing some shit growing up in the Mi’kmaq reserve in Quebec, but his genre influences taught him to make movies from that point-of-view that are entertaining, not strident.
While BLOOD QUANTUM is straight forwardly Barnaby’s take on the zombie post-apocalypse genre, this one is something more distinct. It’s kind of a small time crime tale, set (like BLOOD QUANTUM) in a fictional reservation called Red Crow, but in 1976 (the year Barnaby was born). Reservation Dogs star Devery Jacobs (credited here as Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs) plays Aila, a teenager who has been running the family weed business since a drunk driving accident killed her brother and mother and put her father in prison.
Aila is pretty much in a gang war with Popper (Mark Antony Krupa, “Drunk White Guy,” THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY), the sadistic Indian agent who lords over the area. She uses the drug money to pay the “truancy tax” (bribe) for herself and some friends not to have to attend St. Dymphna’s, one of the highly abusive residential schools Canada forced First Nations children into to erase their culture. But Popper’s agents raid the strip club where Sholo (Cody Bird) hangs out as cover to steal the month’s proceeds from him, so Aila needs a way to get some money before the end of the month. That ultimately leads to a plan to break into the school itself and steal the money back from Popper.
Meanwhile, Aila’s father Joseph (Glen Gould, WOLVES, COLD PURSUIT) returns from prison, which is both a joyous occasion and a complication. Joseph broods about his little girl now being a drug dealer, and completes the unfinished business of blowing up the car that ruined his life – that “eats little kids” according to Aila. In narration Aila tells us that her father is “not a good man, more like a man who does good things for wrong reasons and wrong things for good reasons.” Gould is one of those actors with an impressive presence even while not noticeably doing anything. And of course Joseph is right to worry about his daughter running a drug empire and having passed out customers laying on the floor everywhere in the morning. Yet Aila is able to remain in charge. She and her uncle/colleague Burner (Brandon Oakes, “Elder #3,” PATHFINDER) have a point when they try to explain that things are complicated and you can’t just come back and tell them to stop what they’ve been doing for years without expecting consequences – like Aila being forced to go to the same school that fucked up Joseph’s whole generation.
Aila is an artist, like her mother, and she takes pride in bringing artistry to everything she does. That includes inventing her own recipes for blunts (an anachronistic term, I believe) dipped in whisky, wine and cognac, honey or formaldehyde to appeal to specific demographics. It also brings some cool visuals: she wears a gas mask both for spraypainting van murals and rolling blunts, she gives her young lookout ghoulish face paint, the heist is committed on Halloween in skeleton, bunny and “old lady” costumes. There’s a scene where she hears a story from her grandma (Katherine Sorbey, SQUANTO: A WARRIOR’S TALE) and we see it interpreted in a limited animation version of her sketchbook, but she draws it in her own way: the wolf is a skull-faced creature with metal parts sticking out of its back, the tree is a collection of bent electrical towers. A nice way to show both that Aila has her own way of seeing things and that said way doesn’t draw lines between the traditional with the modern.
In a 2014 interview with Muskrat Magazine Barnaby said “I don’t try to perpetuate the idea of drum and feather Indians that talk to the spirits and are one with the ancestors and all that other new age bullshit… I am more interested in the Indian after the ceremony, not during. Ceremonies are meant to be sacred, and take place in a specific space and time, but I am interested in what those guys do when they go home.” But here he does rather matter-of-factly deal with dreams and visions of lost spirits. Aila’s mother (Roseeanna Supernault, INTO THE WEST) is one of numerous graves in the woods, unnamed because they were suicides, and Barnaby gets a great horror atmosphere going when Aila dreams of her climbing out of the dirt and wet leaves. Sometimes she talks to her. Other times she sees Tyler waiting for her to finish a drawing.
In some strange way the prologue reminds me of the one in MENACE II SOCIETY – a somewhat fevered memory of being around adults doing things kids should be kept far away from. The raid on the strip club, featuring narration and a slow motion beat down set to music (the soundtrack is mostly bluesy), seems like a reference to Scorsese. Yet its world is so different from either of those – a rural area where everyone knows each other, near water that they’re not allowed to go on this time of year due to fishing treaties. She gets around on a bicycle with two motorcycle style rearview mirrors and some small animal’s skull on the handlebars. Some of the structures – actual homes, as well as the pieced-together shack Aila calls the Fortress of Solitude – would make sense in the post-apocalyptic world of BLOOD QUANTUM.
Aila is a great character, believably having sway over all these people, demanding the respect of adults, causing enough fear and anger in Popper that he has to take her down a notch by smearing her mural, or cutting her braids. As she says, “The day I found my mother dead I aged 5,000 years,” but she also says “I was never a little girl.” The psychological damage done to children is an endless cycle here – they all went to St. D’s. It’s cute and funny that Aila has a little kid lookout (Shako Mattawa Jacobs) who calls her “boss.” And there’s a sense of triumph when that kid saves her ass by letting her out of the school, and even a little bit, for a second, when he shows up with a gun and stops Popper from a particularly heinous act. But instantly you realize that no, the undercurrent of why that kid was funny was how wrong it is to have a kid involved in this, and we know this is gonna literally haunt him just like the things that Aila saw when she was his age. This shit just keeps perpetuating.
(NOTE: In the above-linked piece the interviewer refers to the boy at the end as Tyler, and Barnaby doesn’t correct him, so I wondered if that kid was supposed to be the spirit of her dead little brother and I just didn’t pick up on it the whole time? But I went back and checked and no, I’m confident that’s a different character, Jujijj. But certainly he represents a vengeance for Tyler and every other kid that got a raw deal on the Red Crow.)
I think one thing that feels fresh about Barnaby’s movies is that he depicts his experiences without seeming weighed down by pressure to present a positive image. In that interview he said, “I did a screenplay called THE COLONY that got shit on by all these urban Native juries who didn’t want to give it money because they thought it portrayed Native people as being negative, and I’m like who the fuck are you guys who’ve never stepped foot on a reserve telling the kid who grew up on a reserve what to say about his community?”
The honesty of the approach is effective. His characters and his casts are great because they recognize that people can be broken and lost and they can do bad things while still being worthy of love and happiness. And thankfully most are also funny and some are talented and together they’re fighting back against a bonafide piece of shit representing true historical atrocities. That makes it go down easier.
I should rewatch BLOOD QUANTUM – mainly because it’s good, but now because I’m curious about its connections to this one. I’m not sure using the same fictional reservation name means they’re in the same world, but I know there are other connections between cast members (Jacobs and Oakes are in both), the love of cool masks, and artist characters who bring flair to even a post-apocalyptic existence (sometimes expressed in limited animation). RHYMES also has Burner talking (anachronistically in my opinion) about zombies, and talking up Aila to her dad by saying “She’s going to be eating people after the apocalypse.” They’d probly make an interesting double feature.
R.I.P. Jeff Barnaby