It's a relief that first-time feature director Jeff Barnaby has his priorities straight as a filmmaker.
Barnaby's movie Rhymes for Young Ghouls is set against the backdrop of the Red Crow Indian Reservation, a community living under the heel of a nearby residential school and its demonic overseer/Indian Agent circa 1976.
One expects another well-intentioned social drama, picking at the scabs of Canada's shameful policy of ripping First Nations children from their parents.
Barnaby certainly addresses that issue. But mostly, he stays true to a primary agenda of making a stylish, hard-hitting and entertaining movie.
Rhymes for Young Ghouls unspools like a collage of genres -- horror, heist movie, revenge thriller -- in telling the story of Aila (Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs), a 15-year-old girl who has had to grow up too fast following a ghastly family tragedy that resulted in the death of both her mother and her younger brother.
Taking responsibility for the tragedy, her father Joseph (Glen Gould) is sent to prison, leaving Aila to be raised by her grandmother and her sketchy uncle Burner (Brandon Oakes).
At the age of 15, Aila functions as a canny survivor, selling marijuana and using the proceeds to pay off the aforementioned venal Indian agent Popper (Mark Antony Krupa) to keep herself out of "St. D's," the school where most of the rez's children are held hostage.
Aila, too, has her priorities straight. St. D's is a residential school from hell where oppression, violence and molestation are rote institutional procedure.
Trouble arises. Her monthly payment to Popper has been stolen. And her father has just been released from prison, arriving back on the reserve with vague intentions of saving her from a life that allows her at least some semblance of liberty.
Barnaby's script is rough and a tad disjointed. Fantasy scenes of Aila interacting with her dead mom and brother are artfully spooky. But there's no art or subtlety regarding the villain Popper, who functions as a one-man repository for institutional evil. He's simultaneously a figure of religious hypocrisy, gangland skulduggery and police corruption. All that's missing is his Darth Vader helmet.
Otherwise, the film showcases Barnaby's impressive visual skills, creating a nature-based Gothic atmosphere using an earthy, autumnal colour palette, and memorably incorporating animation to link Aila's tribal Mi'kmaq past with her druggie present.
Many cast members are amateur, but that's a flaw Barnaby overcomes with an appealing central performance by Jacobs, who projects a difficult blend of melancholy and slow-burning rage. Jacobs is ably supported by Oakes (who nicely portrays the charming ne'er-do-well), and Gould as her haunted dad.
The true star here, however, is Barnaby, who brings sophistication and impressive storytelling skills to the realm of First Nations cinema. He is one to watch.