In her two previous shorts, Vancouver director Meredith Hama-Brown has tackled an adolescent reckoning with mortality, (Broken Bunny, 2018), and a senior’s foray into the dating scene (Cosmic, 2020). In Seagrass, her feature film debut, Hama-Brown is once again asking some big questions about love, life, and loss of innocence.
When Seagrass begins, Judith (Ally Maki) and her husband Steve (Luke Roberts) are en route to a group therapy retreat. In the wake of her mother’s passing, Judith has been feeling dissatisfied. She has two sweet daughters, enough to live on, and a marriage where nothing is tangibly wrong, but she’s been feeling unhappy. With eleven-year-old Steph and six-year-old Emmy in tow, they head to the BC coastline in hopes of fixing things. Instead, they find them unravelling further as the week goes on.
Central to this unravelling are Pat and Carol, a couple who are a testament to the power of therapy. Like Judith and Steve, they’re a biracial pair, but unlike Judith and Steve, they are outwardly, blissfully in love. They have loud, obtrusive sex. They take elaborate vacations. They’re into PDA. They act as a destabilizing force simply by existing, and being everything Judith and Steve feel they should be, but simply aren’t.
This is especially true of Pat, a character I was highly entertained by, even if he is a bit of a caricature of a caricature. Chris Pang leans in to playing him as obnoxiously too-good-to-be-true: Pat drives a fancy car, speaks many languages, and is an excellent student of group therapy. Pat offers advice by quoting Buddah. He offers some comic relief, but only some of it feels intentional. I wonder if the point Seagrass is trying to make about the contrast between these two couples would feel more poignant if Pat and Carol were a little less perfect, a little more nuanced.
Steve, similarly, feels a bit one-note; the white husband who makes micro-aggressive remarks, refuses to open up in therapy, and resorts to infantile behavoir when he’s unhappy. Towards the beginning he says he doesn’t think they need therapy, but every interaction between him and Judith begs to differ. Arguments between these two are stilted, awkwardly written, and from the beginning you’re not sure if you even should be rooting for them, but you’ve got almost two hours of run-time ahead of you, so you might as well try! I found them to draw more sympathy as individuals, particularly Ally Maki’s Judith, who is struggling to be a good mother in the midst of her grief, as she reflects on her own relationship with her parents.
While the adults are squabbling, what are their daughters doing? They’re at summer camp, basically, and in contrast to how I felt about whatever’s going on with their parents, I loved this plotline. Is Meredith Hama-Brown an older sibling or a younger sibling? I’d love to know. And if she’s an only child, then damn, she’s just a great observer, because it’s been a long time since I recognized an on-screen dynamic so intimately. Steph and Emmy are great friends when it’s just the two of them, but as soon as they join the big kids, Steph ditches Emmy for new friends her own age, while Emmy flounders to find pals of her own. She’d rather tag along with her big sister, even if her big sister is going to tease her in public and coerce her into doing her dirty work in private. It felt so uncannily familiar to watch it all unfold as a younger sibling myself.
All this takes place in front of the stunning background of the Pacific coast, captured beautifully by cinematographer Norm Li. The rugged coastline, sun glinting off water, languid afternoons in the pool; Seagrass is gorgeous to look at. Sequences featuring swooping camera movements that hint at something otherworldly felt a bit out of place to me, both visually and thematically. Otherwise, though, this has been one of my favourite film-watching experiences of the festival so far from a visual standpoint.
Seagrass isn’t a flawless first feature, but it’s an interesting effort that looks great and has at least one plotline worth your attention. I’ll be interested to see what Meredith Hama-Brown does next.