TIFF: SEAGRASS a Simmering Portrait of Family Dysfunction

It’s a sobering reminder of the passage of time when you begin to see your childhood years rendered as period pieces on an increasing number of films and TV series. Like last year’s Riceboy Sleeps, Meredith Hama-Brown’s debut feature Seagrass examines the Asian-Canadian experience in 1990s B.C., only this time from a biracial angle.

I was 5-years-old at the time of the film’s summer 1994 setting, only slightly younger than Emmy (Remy Marthaller), the youngest daughter of a family who has decided to spend the summer at a self-development retreat on the Gulf Islands. Judith (Ally Maki) has lost the spark with her husband Steve (Luke Roberts). They make little headway in the new age therapy sessions, but end up befriending another interracial couple, Pat (Chris Pang) and Carol (Sarah Gadon) who embody everything Judith feels is lacking in her own marriage. She especially finds herself drawn to Pat who has a connection to his Asian heritage that she sorely lacks. She is unable to speak Japanese and knows little of her family’s homeland due tot the generation trauma of WWII Japanese internment.

Meanwhile, oldest daughter Stephanie (Nyha Huang Breitkreuz) is shakily navigating the pangs of puberty as she endeavours to score social status with the island’s preteen “in-crowd” while growing increasingly estranged from her younger sister. With her parents fighting and her sister treating her like unwanted baggage, Emmy declines to make friends with the younger kids and instead seeks solace in inanimate objects and a seaside cave the locals rumour is haunted.

As Steve grows increasingly jealous of his wife’s affection for Pat, Judith draws further and further away from both her husband and children. These schisms indirectly lead to fallout that may leave the family broken forever.

Seagrass is clearly a deeply personal work for director Hama-Brown, burrowing deep into the rifts that inevitably occur when dysfunctional couples bring children into the world and the fallout that ensues. An assured directorial hand is keenly felt throughout, perhaps best expressed in the film’s absolutely stellar cinematography. Veteran DP Norm Li lenses the story in an earthy 35mm, keeping the camera smooth, static and distant for the parents while switching to a more free-flowing and erratic handheld frame for the children. Gabriola shines as a filming location and I’ve rarely seen the Gulf Islands look better on film.

The film’s technical achievements shouldn’t discount the actors who give their all here, often communicating much more than merely what’s on the scripted page. Maki is given the most heavy-lifting to do as the distressed Judith while the two child actors punch above their weight in every scene. Curiously sidelined for most of the picture is arguably the most recognizable face, Sarah Gadon, who is given next to nothing to do as Carol, other than be eternally smitten with husband Pat. An unfortunate under-use of such a talented actress (North of Normal, Cosmopolis).

As always, I feel compelled to award extra points to any Canadian film that embraces its home setting. I can’t recall ever hearing the familiar “thank you for sailing with BC Ferries” announcement on screen before, much less seeing the long-forgotten Canadian $2 bill. The film also does a better-than-average job of rendering the tacky pastel feel of the early/mid-90s (plenty of neon pink and such). 

A lovingly-rendered, if not somewhat protracted portrait of a dysfunctional family, Seagrass scores a win for independent Canadian cinema and heralds a fresh directorial voice. I look forward to Hama-Brown’s future works. Recommended. 




Seagrass screens as part of TIFF on Thursday, Sept 14- 3:20pm @ The Scotiabank Theatre and also as part of VIFF on Friday, Sept 29 – 9pm @ the Rio Theatre

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