Seagrass ★★★★★ TIFF 2023

Seagrass ★★★★★ TIFF 2023

As absorbing a family drama as you will see, Meredith Hama-Brown’s Seagrass introspective feature debut is astounding. Excelling in the small moments, this is an exceptional look at a fractured biracial relationship.

Set in the mid-1990s, a Japanese Canadian woman grappling with the recent death of her mother brings her family to a self-development retreat. When her distressed relationship with her husband affects the children’s emotional security, the family is forever changed.

Seeing this relationship between Judith and Steve be so fractured, as much as it is, creates an almost refreshing feeling to Seagrass. We see a biracial couple struggle; it isn’t all rosy in their garden. They are like any other couple, but the differences in their cultures and the partial conflict it causes are intriguing here. There are no dramatic reasons for this fracture either, just a couple slowly moving apart; their issue is amplified by the fact that they are both unwilling to air their thoughts to one another. As the film progresses, this fracture becomes a valley with how much they have fallen away from each other emotionally, romantically, or even sexually. They are not as one anymore, and everyone can see it, especially their children.

By having us witness what looks like the beginning of the end of their relationship in Seagrass, we also get to see how that affects their children, Stephanie and Emmy. I will go into this more later, but it soon becomes fascinating how different both children deal with what is happening to their family dynamic. Stephanie is pushing this apparent stress into mildly rebelling and trying to be more independent from her parents and sister. She needs to grow up now to prepare herself for what might come. With Emmy, she is withdrawn, aware that another loss may be approaching and trying to disengage her mind from it and push it towards something else, in this case, her Grandmother.

With each of our four characters having their own threads run parallel to each other in Seagrass, you become acutely aware of how impressive the script is from writer-director Meredith Hama-Brown. Pushing through with multiple layers each character is consumed by is a daring idea for a first-time feature director, but she wades through it effortlessly.

Not only is Judith dealing with the struggles of her marriage, but she is also still reeling from her mother’s death and how she has come to realise that she never took on or gained an interest in her parent’s culture. She is lost between cultures and unsure how to find or rebuild that identity. She is trying and failing to convey these thoughts to Steve and can only do so when she is in a state. The only thing she thinks she has taken from her parents is the attitude of battling through the difficulties because it is her duty as a mother and a wife to do so.

With Steve, he is as emotionally inarticulate as his wife. Still, with her obvious cultural identity issues, he has no way of helping her, of finding the right words to soothe the woman he loves. He is lost and frustrated that his marriage has fallen away as it has. As Seagrass progresses, this frustration only rises and will only release itself cathartically as the realisation sets in.

Their oldest daughter is going through issues of her own, dealing with being the daughter of a biracial family; she has to deal with lines from apparent new friends who note that other than her eyes, she “looks normal”. Stephanie is stuck in a world where neither parent can relate as both are Caucasian or a child of two Japanese parents. She is the first of her family and has to struggle alone on her journey. Add to this her increasing need for independence from her sister, to be her own person, and we see an adolescent also lost in her own identity.

Then we have poor Emmy, who is alone in dealing with the loss of her Grandmother and the rupturing of her family dynamic. As mentioned earlier, it feels as if Emmy already knows what is happening and instead has focussed more on her Grandmother. She becomes obsessed with the idea that she, even in ghost form, is in that cave the other kids told her about. We witness her become more possessive of objects around her and, in fact she incredibly fascinating story arc.

Hama-Brown’s script is full of quiet, minuscule moments that knock you. Moments such as Emmy growing attached to the purple ball from the pool and wanting to take it with her back to their cabin, but when told she can’t, she says something that unbeknownst to Judith means a lot more than what she thinks: “What if it’s not here when I come back”. She is so clearly affected by the loss of her Grandmother that she cannot let anything she enjoys go in case it also leaves her, which is truly devastating. But then what she does with that ball by the end of Seagrass becomes captivating.

The tension that runs through the family in the early portions of Seagrass reaches those horribly cringe-inducing levels of unbearable-ness. In a scene where Judith and Steve get to know Pat and Sam, a mini disagreement ensues about Steve wanting to travel, with them both deciding that they should most certainly go off one time. What is perfect about this scene is that we focus on them for their dialogue. As a button to that uncomfortable scene, we eventually see Pat and Sam’s facial reaction to that entire exchange. They are undoubtedly the audience in that moment.

The entire cast is the epitome of pitch-perfect casting; each performance is faultless, from the continually conflicted and fraught performance of Ally Maki to the frustrated and eventual jealous induced one of Luke Roberts. You fall and pity these characters as the world as they know it crumbles around them, but special mention needs to go out to Remy Marthaller and Nyha Huang Breirkreuz; they give us something amazing as child actors.

Norm Li’s majestical cinematography really takes hold of you, with the camera weaving and swaying hauntingly around the retreat in a wonderfully hypnotic manner. Only when we realise the destination and intents of those shots do we realise how impactful and creative it is. Couple this with how we are always at a distance with our characters. Hama-Brown never lets us in with them, showing us how uncertain and fractured they are in their situation. But, most importantly, how alone they feel in their current circumstances.

The camera is never tight in on the characters, especially when they are upset. We are always back a little from them, watching from a couple of arm’s length away. Usually, this would bring a cold tone to the film; however, in Seagrass, it feels gentle. As if we are trying to let these characters work out their problems for themselves, no matter how painful that may be at the time.

Seagrass is the type of film that will have you talking endlessly about what you watch; all the little emotions and layers are enthralling. With a cast all on top form, you will struggle not to feel emotional at their internal turmoil. This review could go on for another 1000 words about the moments witnessed within Hama-Brown’s film, but with all excellent films, it is simply better to watch and experience it for yourself – an essential watch.


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