Starting off grim and growing ever grimmer, “Rhymes for Young Ghouls” is a blood- and booze-soaked revenge drama marking the impressive debut of filmmaker Jeff Barnaby.
Set on the Red Crow Mi’gMaq reservation in Quebec, Canada, during the mid-‘70s, the film takes place during a not-so-proud period in Canadian history when, by government decree, native children under the age of 16 were required to attend residential schools.
Thus far, 15-year-old Aila (a commanding Devery Jacobs) has avoided the virtual prison that is St. Dymphna’s. As the reservation’s “weed princess,” Aila has peddled enough drugs to pay a regular truancy tax to a sadistic Indian agent (Mark A. Krupa).
Considering the film begins with a prologue containing the tragic death of a child and the suicide of a parent, you can assume “Rhymes for Young Ghouls” isn’t going to be a frothy romp. But when Aila’s drug money is stolen, life as she has come to know it takes an even bleaker turn.
Writer-director Barnaby weaves a surprising amount of tenderness into the fabric of violence, as well as a good measure of magic realism, to keep the gritty story engaging.
Its most potent weapon, however, is Jacobs, a remarkably self-possessed actress whose fearless performance brings to mind a younger Ellen Page.
“Rhymes for Young Ghouls”
MPAA rating: R for violence, drug use, language, sexual references, graphic nudity.
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.
Playing: Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.