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Focus on Film: Powell River Film Festival review (Monkey Beach)

In his latest review, Stephen J. Miller says watching Monkey Beach is a journey not to be missed

With everything we see and hear about First Nations’ life, I found Monkey Beach by L. Sarah Todd to be both refreshing, new and enlightening.

I have a confession I want to make. I have had many experiences with Indigenous friends since I was a little kid: canoe steaming, raising a totem pole, helping to carve (and messing it up,) hunting and fishing, sitting around and talking about life, its injustices as well as its beauty. With this background, I loved the journey Todd brought me on.

The ride begins in Downtown Eastside Vancouver, where we meet Lisa, who decides after two years to return back home to her family to detox herself. The story starts to build momentum when we arrive at Haisla Nation near Kitimat, BC, where we meet Lisa’s parents, her brother Jimmy, her uncle Mick and her friends.

Lisa’s return takes everyone by surprise, some very pleased and some full of anger for Lisa disappearing and remaining incommunicado. As we are taken into her family’s life and their relationships, we learn about Lisa’s past, her struggles with her memories and visions, and we ride her journey to learn the truth about her brother Jimmy.

What I very much liked about this story is the way the First Nations are depicted. The author of Monkey Beach, Eden Robinson, shows us a family that is functional even though they have their own set of problems; their living conditions are healthy and they function like any other typical middle-class family. This background provides the framework for the real story to emerge and capture our attention while focusing on the dominant themes of belonging and survival.

Lisa, beautifully played by the cinematically charismatic Grace Dove, is born with powers to see into the spiritual world and to communicate with ghosts of dead people. The transition between real life and spirits, animals and dead people are weaved throughout the story in a journey that makes the viewer want to see more, understand more and to experience more. Todd, the director, takes us from the present to the past and from the material world to the spiritual world through visions, conversations and harrowing experiences. The director creates fear and anxiousness in the viewer while at the same time offering us safety and comfort through a spiritual guide, taking us into worlds we rarely go into.

The acting is excellent with kudos going to Dove, Tina Lameman playing Ma-Ma-Oo, Glen Gould playing the drunken Josh, and Joel Oulette playing Jimmy.

Cinematographer Stirling Bancroft, combined with production designer Sandy Cochrane, beautifully captured the magic of BC’s coastline, forests and lands. The music was inspiring and exciting, using both traditional drum beating combined with modern Indigenous rap.

I was lost in this world that I wanted to know more about. I welcomed the pace the director set, which allowed us to feel the moments, the tension, the happiness and the anger.

The film is 105 minutes but feels like 30 minutes as you move in and out of Lisa’s memories and life. 

For all of the above reasons I give this film four out of five tugboats.

Monkey Beach is one of 12 films playing online during Powell River Film Festival with showings available throughout BC any time, any day, until February 16. For more information, go to

Stephen J. Miller is a producer and creative writer in feature films and television, and past owner of repertoire movie theatres.