starring Ally Maki, Luke Roberts, Nyha Breitkreuz, Chris Pang
written and directed by Meredith Hama-Brown
by Bill Chambers I always brace for gloom when out come the tiny title fonts--in Canada, they're the cinematic equivalent of a funeral director solemnly gesturing towards the casket--but Meredith Hama-Brown's FIPRESCI-winning Seagrass quickly dispelled my cynicism by being so obviously good. Judith (Ally Maki) and Steve (Luke Roberts) are a mixed-race couple with two young daughters, 11-year-old Stephanie (Nyha Breitkreuz) and six-year-old Emmy (Remy Marthaller). Theirs is a troubled marriage, complicated by the recent death of Judith's mother, and so they've travelled with the kids to a couples retreat on the Pacific coast for therapy and respite. There, they meet their mirror image in Pat (Chris Pang) and Carol (Sarah Gadon), handsome marrieds who appear to be farther along in their reconciliation. (Either that, or they're better at presenting a united front.) Judith regards Pat with undeniable yet enigmatic interest and Steve picks up on it, creating a lopsided tension between the two men. But gradually, from the nature of Judith's complaints about Steve--how he never wants to go anywhere exotic; how he doesn't seem to appreciate the depths of her grief, or comprehend her nostalgia for a childhood that sounds like it was mired in hardship--it becomes clear that whatever her physical attraction to Pat, he's thrown Steve's whiteness and all that that implies into stark relief. (Because it's set in the 1990s, unenlightened Steve falls easily into syllogistic traps like asking how he could be a racist when he has a Japanese wife, while Judith lacks the language of rebuttal.) She looks at Pat and wonders, perhaps, if an Asian partner would make her feel less conspicuous. Less ashamed. Less alone.
Left to their own devices--other than the pool, the appeal of this resort for the younger set is that they get to run around mostly unsupervised--Stephanie and Emmy lose the backseat synchronicity they had on the drive up. Stephanie falls in with a snotty little girl named Sam (Hannah Bos) who says things like, "You look pretty normal, though," after goading Stephanie into telling her where her mother's "from from" just to Other her. Even more unforgivably, she deliberately scares poor, sweet Emmy, who develops a heartbreaking attachment to a purple splash ball, kidnapping it from the swimming pool and stowing it in her suitcase. So palpably anxious, Marthaller played my emotions like Itzhak Perlman plays a Stradivarius, and Emmy is such a puppy in a minefield that I wanted to reach through the screen and take her by the hand. Already the rare film about the messiness that precedes separation and divorce, Seagrass stakes out practically uncharted territory in dividing the POV equally between the parents and the children, who are doing their best to ignore one another's drifting apart. All of this can be painful to watch, yet the picture's not without humour--much of it provided by Steve and his passive-aggressive cringe ("My mom passed away recently," Judith tells the group, and Steve blurts out, "Five months ago!")--or lyricism, as in the dreamlike passages exploring the caves on BC's Gabriola Island, which beckon to Emmy, not inaptly, like the wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood". In the Ordinary People-ish closing scene, Judith pounds the final nail in the coffin of her marriage, and the emotional intelligence of Steve's response took my breath away: he comforts her. Hama-Brown is someone to watch; she even makes us care about a blanket and a closet door. Programme: Discovery