In northeastern Québec lies an impossibly small village, an Innu community where many band members still live off the land and almost no English is spoken. Two young girls grow up inseperable; Mikuan (Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine) has a close and loving family, while Shaniss (Yamie Grégoire), like too many First Nation peoples, is picking up the pieces of a fractured family and broken childhood. And while their girlhood games of midnight fishing may not feel familiar, their little girl giggles are universal. Best friends forever, they vow to always stick together.
But just a few years later, when the girls are nearly 17, life is driving them apart. Shaniss has an abusive partner and a baby to care for while Mikuan is learning to express herself and pay tribute to her community through poetry. She falls in love with a white boy (Étienne Galloy) and dreams of leaving the small reserve to go to school. Shaniss, already grieving the loss of her friend, starts to feel abandoned.
Kuessipan, which means “your turn” in Innu, is adapted from a novel by the same name written by a young woman from this same reserve, Naomi Fontaine, who helped directed Myriam Verreault write it for the screen. Shot in and around the Innu Takuaikan Uashat Mak Mani-Utena reserve, the film uses band members rather than professional actors, which lends an authentic but not amateur feel.
The film, wise beyond the 21 years of its young author, is about finding one’s voice and one’s path, and having the courage to do so even when it means leaving people, and the comfort of familiarity, behind. With beautiful Indigenous imagery and stark cinematography, it’s also a look at contemporary life on a First Nations reserve, an infrequent subject in film or in literature. With a history of oppression and colonization, many First Nations people in Canada are still living impoverished, wounded lives. And yet their culture survives and thrives in many small communities across the land, their stories told through art that moves and inspires not just their own people, but Canadians across the country and people beyond its borders as well. Kuessipan tells the story of not one but two young women succeeding in their own way, leading lives that will pave the way for generations to come.