Film still from Kuessipan | Image source: TIFF
Myriam Verreault directs newcomers Sharon Fontaine-Ishpatao and Yamie Gregoire in a poetically written coming of age story that follows the friendship of two Innu girls from childhood into adolescence. Kuessipan means “to you” or “your turn” in Innu, projecting the closeness and love often found in many tiny close-knit First Nations communities.
The film is based upon Innu writer Naomi Fontain’s first book with the same namesake. Fontaine is known for her brilliant and meditative writings that depict Innu culture and ways of being which she skillfully injects into the script. Both her and Verrault worked on the script, which is the film’s biggest strength. Fontaine is able to connect viewers to the inner reflections of being Innu and living off the land, while Verrault brings her innate sense of coming of age storytelling. This isn’t Verrault’s first venture into that genre, she also brought us West of Pluto – a story that follows a day in the life of ten suburban teens in Quebec. They both expertly incorporate heartbreaking moments that flow together with funny and endearing ones that leave me thinking about the film long after it’s over.
Bringing in newcomers with no acting experience was important as it lead to performances that were down-to-earth and realistic. Fontaine-Ishpatoa and Gregoire have excellent chemistry as Mikuan and Shaniss. Mikuan has a very elegant, quiet onscreen presence which is balanced out by the passionate and strong-headed Shaniss. Their differing personalities and outlook on life is what drives the film forward and made the film relatable and compelling.
Kuessipan definitely brought me back to my time growing up in my own First Nations community. Overall I found the film to be an endearing take on what it can be like for youth growing up on “the rez”. It also skips all of the tired Indigenous stereotypes while still being able to incorporate Indigenous cultural and spiritual beliefs. It is nice to see TIFF increase diverse Indigenous programming which supports the film industry in creating more opportunities that are reflective of Indigenous cultures from an Indigenous lens. Having said that, Kuessipan is not directed by an Indigenous person, but it’s Verreault’s experience with coming of age stories that works well with Fontaine’s poetic way of telling stories that make the film a success. This collaboration was a strong outing from both Verreault and Fontaine and I hope to see both of them do more work in film in the future.