In Meredith Hama-Brown’s debut feature Seagrass, it’s the silences that are the most tense and the most potent. Set on a remote island on Canada’s Pacific Coast in the early 1990s, this intimate look at marriage and family – based on the director’s own childhood experiences – delicately but brutally exposes the cracks in a seemingly perfect family.
When we first join them, they’re headed to a resort that caters to couples counselling. The rustic lodge also provides child-minding services that seem to consist mainly of letting the children roam free on the rugged, surprisingly dangerous island. Remember: We’re in the early ’90s, before society considered that health and safety should maybe play a part in everyday life – especially where kids were concerned. The family has travelled here due to the concerns of the mother, Judith (played to perfection by Ally Maki). Born in B.C., she grew up in a Japanese family but–after the passing of her mother– is beginning to realize just how little she knows about her heritage. Recent events seem to have unmoored her completely, leaving her to question everything in her life – her choices, her happiness, and most of all, her marriage. Husband Steve (Luke Roberts) doesn’t understand what is making Judith so unhappy but he’s willing – begrudgingly – to attend sessions that may help heal whatever ails their relationship.
Unfortunately, the more time they spend on the island, the more things begin to unravel. Not least of which is because they befriend another couple, Pat and Carol (Chris Pang and Sarah Gadon), who seem far more assured than our leads in all aspects of their life. One look at their relationship and Judith begins to wonder if there’s anything in her marriage actually worth saving. Pat, in particular, shifts something inside the young mother, both because she’s attracted to him but also because also because his passion for Asian history draws uncomfortably into focus her own lack of knowledge. As we soon find out, communication is the key to fixing what’s clearly and now quite recognizably broken, but neither spouse seems able to articulate exactly how they’re feeling or why.
Though the narrative is driven by this couple trying to find their way back to each other, the majority of screen time is actually spent observing the world through the eyes of Judith and Steve’s two daughters, 11-year-old Steph (Nyha Breitkreuz) and 6-year-old Emmy (Remy Marthaller). Away from the comfort of the familiar, the two siblings react very differently to their new home-away-from-hone. Steph begins to act out to get attention from her pre-teen peers while shy Emmy draws further into herself, still reeling from the death of her grandmother.
Relying on younger actors for pivotal emotional beats in a film can be challenging, and too often films can fall short, but both Breitkreuz and Marthaller are superb here and bring a poignant awkwardness and truth to every moment they’re on screen. Likewise Maki and Roberts nail the painful unravelling of a couple who, until very recently, thought that what they had would be all that they ever needed. Both are striving for something that seems to be drifting further and further away, and as their frustration grows, their patience as parents deserts them.
Hama-Brown’s camera lingers on the gorgeous scenery that surrounds this family in turmoil, and the relentless pounding of the waves against the beaches and cliff faces adds a sense of tension and urgency that belies the tranquility of the rest of their surroundings. As the film finally reaches its climax, and the powder-keg of Judith’s emotion finally explodes, it’s devastating in its simplicity but also in its relatability.
It’s clear that in fictionalizing this version of her own experiences and racial identity, the writer-director has struck on something potent and even slightly beautiful about family and parenthood, and the damage done by repeated, generational mistakes. There are no neatly wrapped-up storylines to be found here either, but the layered ending is no less satisfying for its lack of closure. Anything neater would feel like a misstep in a story so grounded in the realities of every day life.
Meredith Hama-Brown’s insight and instinct for storytelling, and her grasp on emotional truth and the power of silence, make Seagrass a truly impressive debut. Keep an eye on this young filmmaker – she’s a fresh and exciting voice very much worth listening to.
Seagrass has its World Premiere at TIFF 2023. Head here for more from this year’s festival.