seagrass film movie review

Seagrass is a stunning and dreamy vision of lost love

4.5 out of 5 stars

The gulping, slivered mouth of a cave adorns one of the posters for Meredith Hama-Brown’s Seagrass. Most of the poster is filled with the negative space of the rock — not blackened, but hazy shades of earthy browns; the edges are blown out with greens and greys. A small figure stands at the entrance, back to the sea. We wonder if she will step into the darkness, step into the cave that children say is haunted. 

The film was shot by Norm Li, whose work on Beyond the Black Rainbow and The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open mark him as a generational talent. The film focuses on the earthy atmosphere of a textured and living depiction of Gabriola Island, off the coast of Nanaimo, B.C. The inner island has forested hills that feel damp, with a thick canopy that barely allows light to pass through to the ground. By the shore, the beautiful public beaches are marked off by rock formations that seem ancient and secretive. Children play with seaweed that has come in with the tide, stepping on it so it squeezes between their toes. The misty light of a seabound place, thick with condensation, casts an almost mythical atmosphere on the whole film. 

The island is the setting for a marital retreat for couples who’ve lost their way or are looking to strengthen their bonds. After the death of her mother, Judith (Ally Maki) feels uprooted and struggles to connect with her husband Steve (Luke Roberts). He has gentle eyes, tired now from the stress of a marriage that isn’t working and a wife who seems changed, as he bristles with resentment. Their three daughters come with them, webbed into the marital tension without understanding the relationship crisis’s depth. The children go on island adventures as their parents go to therapy sessions and grow closer to another couple.

Ally Maki (right) in Seagrass

Judith’s parents were Japanese but passed little of their past and language onto her. She learns more about their time in an internment camp from another guest on the island. Looking down in shame and regret, she muses that some things were never spoken about in their home. As she struggles with her mother’s death, she feels increasingly untethered from her sense of identity. Her husband, who is white, bombards her with nearly constant micro-aggressions, revealing a lack of compassion and curiosity about her struggles. As the film progresses, her silence grows louder until she can’t take it anymore. She begins to speak up, and the marriage, rather than growing stronger, becomes more strained. 

Ally Maki’s performance is immense as she balances a character searching for any sense of self. There’s an intense vulnerability in how she holds herself, wanting to be cracked open and having someone else pour her feelings into. She grows attracted to Pat (Chris Pang), an Asian man married to a white woman played by Sarah Gadon, who is both venomous and luminous. Judith leans on him for a kinship in experience, a familiarity lost. It’s tender and bittersweet, unfruitful but filled with fleeting gestures and hidden moments of joy. In one scene, Maki takes the stage to sing karaoke. A drink in hand, her voice is soft, mournful, “Everything I’ll ever have, even things I’ll never have, I’ll give to you.” The camera’s movement leads us toward the two men she’s torn between, her husband and Pat, making it impossible to tell who she’s addressing. 

We also feel the phantom of her mourning, and it’s impossible not to think of Sinead O’Connor’s chilling “Nothing Compares 2 U,” turning Prince’s song about an abandoned lover into a desperate call for a lost mother. The softness of Maki’s performance, a way of shrinking herself down to nothing as a mode of survival, becomes a turning point, as the next day, things will change. 

Against the backdrop of adult drama, the film is backgrounded by the adventures of the couple’s three daughters. Maybe I’m biased, having grown up with two sisters, but few films have captured the constant whiplash violence and adoration in sibling interactions. The child actors are all spectacular, their performances rooted in an almost eerie realism that evokes particular lived experiences and the emotional range of each age group. The constant push and pull of near-violent repulsion and out-of-control, insane love creates an almost constant cascade of drama. Like the churning waters of the ocean, beauty and violence go hand in hand, forming a pulsing and unending rhythm that transcends separation and death. The children are independent, as much as children are, but their presence only serves to underline Judith’s pain over her loss as the act of mothering becomes a constant reminder of the newfound absence in her life after her mother’s death (and also, perhaps, the impending one in her marriage). 

If the film ever falters, it’s only the brief moments where one feels the fingerprints of the Canadian financing system. There are lines of dialogue that are a little too on-the-nose to address the specifics of racism. The film features so many minor and major careless remarks that a couple of lines just feel overstated (though not the confrontation between Judith and Steve where she accuses him of being racist — a necessary pointed moment of confrontation). The movie itself is so simple and effective already, so embodied within the subjectivity of Judith that it feels unnecessary. But it’s a minor qualm in an exceptionally moving and compelling film. 

The last few minutes of Seagrass are harrowing in intensity and honesty, a devastating culmination of everything that preceded it. Overall, it’s a film that lingers, like a kind of rot you can’t quite shake. It reminds me of my family vacation to the Atlantic Coast as a teen. We stayed in a house by the ocean, and even if it was summer, at night, when you tried to sleep, the whole bed and house seemed infused with the damp cold of the dark waters. The nights were restless and full of nightmares, and they still linger like a chill two decades later. Seagrass has the same effect. 

Seagrass (directed by Meredith Hama-Brown)

Seagrass is now playing in Montreal theatres

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