A person’s identity is a complex thing, and people are far too prone to making baseless assumptions about who someone is and what they’ve been through over the course of their life. A new environment or being in the same place as a new person or group of people can bring to the surface previously unexplored emotions and issues, and those circumstances have the power to drastically change someone’s worldview and their relationship with the people closest to them. Seagrass presents a powerful exploration of what it means to fit in while feeling distinctly separate.
Judith (Ally Maki) and Steve (Luke Roberts) travel to a family retreat with their two daughters, eleven-year-old Stephanie (Nyha Breitkreuz) and six-year-old Emmy (Remy Marthaller). It’s a chance for the kids to embrace nature and meet other children while Judith and Steve take time to work on their fractured marriage. An introduction to Pat (Chris Pang) and Carol (Sarah Gadon) only serves to make them feel further apart and less compatible, as Judith and Pat’s shared Asian heritage gives them something to bond over that Steve and Carol will never truly be able to understand.
Writer-director Meredith Hama-Brown makes her feature debut with Seagrass, a quiet look at the things people keep bottled up inside and the unpredictable ways in which they bubble to the surface. Judith and Steve’s relationship dynamic is only part of it, since Stephanie is going through her own issues as she tries to fit in with other girls and Emmy remains fixated on her late grandmother’s apparently lingering spirit. Their surroundings are meant to invoke serenity and peace, but instead the air is infused with trepidation and a sense of longing, as if this temporary space feels all too impossible to make permanent.
In one of the first conversations between the two featured adult couples, Pat asks Judith a question about her family history, catching her off-guard and bringing up something that clearly hasn’t been prominently discussed in her own marriage. Pat is Chinese Australian and Judith is Japanese Canadian, and he correctly assesses that her parents were interned in camps during World War II. The casual dredging up of this painful memory brings much to the forefront and helps to expose the ways in which unseen or undiscussed realities can still be deeply impactful and presents the opportunity for societal conversations that typically avoid returning to problematic elements of the past.
Maki, who also appears in a very different Asian-led film this year, Shortcomings, delivers a nuanced and deliberate performance as Judith, tapping into the way in which she constantly represses her feelings and particularly her temper. Watching her slowly let herself open up is an unnerving and fascinating process, and Maki handles the shifts extremely well. Roberts brings a deep dissatisfaction and lack of patience to Steve, while Pang and Gadon present an airier and less fully realized couple that have yet to truly encounter any substantial obstacles in their own relationship yet seem alluring.
There is an additional part of this film that has little to do with Judith and Steve yet is extremely influenced by their parenting style and the ways in which they haven’t successfully hidden their unhappiness from their children. Breitkreuz and Marthaller are both relative newcomers who demonstrate enormous potential in their mature engagement with difficult material that deals not only with adolescent bullying and peer pressure but also with generational trauma that they couldn’t hope to comprehend. The entire family’s story converges in an unexpected manner that feels true to real life, bringing audiences out of the vacation setting and back to the day-to-day routine in which its members will need to continue existing.
Seagrass makes its world premiere in the Discovery section at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.