Myriam Verreault’s Kuessipan (2019) is one of the best films about friendship in a long time. Mikuan and Shaniss grow up on the Innu reservation in Québec, and while the movie could easily showcase all kinds of social problems of the indigenous population, it contains refreshingly few scenes of actual violence. It has the good sense of letting us know that even between the two young girls, things are very different: while Mikuan grows up in a relatively stable family, Shaniss finds her mother dead drunk and unconscious on the kitchen floor, and when Shaniss is placed in a care home, it’s Mikuan who walks all those miles along the coast to see her bestie.
Verreault, who is not an Innu, and Naomi Fontaine, who is, wrote the screenplay together, based on Fontaine’s 2011 novel of the same name. Fontaine’s first-hand experience of alcoholism, suicide, domestic violence, indifference of police and other authorities, loss of traditions, landgrabs and economic independence vs. intact nature shows in every scene, but the movie doesn’t put its characters under the microscope; it meets them at eye-level, and we’re with them in the room. We have to pay attention when the characters switch between French and English, and are lost when they talk in Montagnais amongst themselves. Neither Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine nor Yamie Grégoire have acted before, but since they seem to play characters based on people they know and have grown up with, they bring to their roles what is needed.
Shaniss falls for a guy who will turn out not to be too good for her, but since she leaves him as soon as he beats her in a drunken rage, it’s clear that she refuses to be a victim. It’s Mikuan’s family who provides sanctuary for Shaniss and her small kid. Mikuan, meanwhile, thinks she has to hide the fact that her boyfriend is white. When Shaniss finds out, she is enraged, telling her best friend that, if every Innu did that, they would cease to exist. Mikuan is hurt, of course, but she knows that there is a kernel of truth to what Shaniss says, and she also understands the rage with which Shaniss yells at her.
There are many memorable scenes in Kuessipan: the two girls pelting their families with the small fish they caught in the night surf; Mikuan’s dad dismembering a deer on a tarpaulin in the middle of the living-room floor; and a funny scene where Mikuan and her boyfriend Francis listen to the crackling of the power lines that were built across the reservation without consulting the Innu, and then Francis wondering if he can get Pokémon Go out here.
I was confident that Mikuan, with her gift for poetry, would make her way, even if that meant leaving the area and living in the city. I was more concerned about Shaniss, eventually a mother of two, who would either stay with her abusive boyfriend, or end up being a single mother, but never leaving the place she grew up in. How much strain can a friendship take? A lot, it turns out.