Every year has one film that is painful to review, and for 2020, it’s Monkey Beach. One never enjoys panning passion projects, but this years-in-the-making adaptation of Eden Robinson’s novel pales in comparison to its source. Monkey Beach, the book, is top-tier CanCon. It’s one of the seminal works of Indigenous literature produced in this land. The scope, thrill for adventure, and rich visual language of Robinson’s prose are ready-made for cinema. More significantly, Robinson’s story about Lisa, a young Haisla woman accepting her ability to navigate two worlds, is a rich tale of survival and resilience. Monkey Beach, the book, is thrilling, magical, and palpably important.
Loretta Todd’s Monkey Beach evokes the importance of the novel, but a film needs to do more than replicate themes. Unfortunately, Monkey Beach simply doesn’t build the elaborate world or carry the signature that makes Robinson’s work so powerful. The fault isn’t necessarily Todd’s, but rather one of resources. It just never gets off the ground. Even viewers who aren’t familiar with the book will likely struggle.
Monkey and Ma-Ma-Oo
The film streamlines Robinson’s story as its heroine Lisa (Grace Dove) returns to Kitamaat. She’s been gone for nearly two years following the death of her friend, Tabitha (Sera-Lys McArthur). However, Tabitha rarely leaves Lisa’s side, appearing as a ghost that only her friend can see. More ghosts populate Kitamaat and, eventually, the titular island of Monkey Beach where sasquatches are said to roam. It’s here that Lisa must confront her past and learn of the fate of her brother, Jimmy (Trickster’s Joel Ouellette).
Todd weaves past and present as storylines converge at Monkey Beach. The other thread features a young Lisa and Jimmy with their grandmother, Ma-Ma-Oo (Tina Lameman) who serves as their protector. The dual timelines evoke themes of intergenerational struggles and history passed (or lost) between elders and their children.
The film admirably puts a community on screen and creates space through this story. One can’t fault Monkey Beach in terms of representational power. Dramatically, however, it proves lacking. Issues of pacing make an abbreviated adaptation feel overlong, while the truncated storyline generates plot holes. Stilted performances also mute its power with Dove struggling to match the spunky fire of Robinson’s heroine. However, Lameman is a quietly compelling presence as Ma-Ma-Oo while Ouellette again holds his own in Robinson’s world.
Monkey Beach Runs into Monkey Trouble
The film juggles temporalities better than realities. Few visual cues transport viewers from one world to the next. The elements that do, like cartoonish colour filters in Lisa’s climactic showdown with evil spirits, afford the film few favours. The ghosts that appear alongside Lisa alternate between live actors and fuzzy apparitions. Monkey Beach doesn’t reserve a consistent aesthetic for the ghosts as Lisa interacts with people of ambiguous mortality. The confusing nature of the ghosts dulls the power of Lisa’s ability to straddle two worlds. Moreover, the visual effects used to create the more overtly stylised ghosts betray the modest budget. They’re poorly rendered beings that might better have been conveyed through practical effects or a commitment to realism. One remains at a remove, comparable (unfortunately) to the production values of Cats overriding one’s suspension of disbelief. (Okay, the effects aren’t that bad but are a similar detriment.)
The argument again falls back to scope and resources. Monkey Beach needs a budget on par with adaptations of Barney’s Version and Maria Chapdelaine to do its story justice. (Todd herself has cited budget constraints.) There are just too many worlds, narratives, and layers to execute it with such a shoestring budget. Creating the complexities of Robinson’s multifaceted and shape-shifting world is possible, as Michelle Latimer’s miniseries for Trickster shows. However, Trickster has multiple episodes to breathe and much bigger resources to build Robinson’s world. One hopes it inspires the CBC to commission a mini-series for Monkey Beach and invite Todd to realize its full potential.
Monkey Beach is now playing in select theatres.