“Seagrass” explores inter-generational trauma

“Seagrass” is written and directed by Meredith Hama-Brown. The film explores how turmoil in a family can affect the dynamics in an already struggling family unit while exploring themes of race. // Photo courtesy of IMDb

From the Japanese-Canadian writer, actress and director Meredith Hama-Brown comes “Seagrass,” an award-winning film that explores how internal turmoil stemming from intergenerational trauma can affect the dynamics within an already struggling family unit. 

The movie begins with a family arriving at an immersive personal growth retreat. Along with wife Judith (Ally Maki, “Wrecked”) and husband Steve (Luke Roberts, “Black Sails”) are their two daughters, Stephanie (Nyha Huang Breitkreuz) and Emmy (Remy Marthaller). Though the couple enrolled in the program to attempt to fix their strained marriage following the recent death of Judith’s mother, the relationship continues to deteriorate rapidly, affecting not just the two of them but also their kids. Their struggles only seem to be exacerbated by one of the other couples at the retreat, Pat (Chris Pang, “Crazy Rich Asians”) and Sam (Hannah Bos).

Like Judith and Steve, Pat and Sam are a mixed-race couple, though Pat is Chinese-Australian instead of Japanese-Canadian like Judith. As Pat asks Judith various questions about her mom — or her parents in general — that she is unable to answer, Judith’s feelings of guilt around her lack of knowledge of her heritage increase as she tries to handle her grief.

As she and Steve are trudging through the retreat’s programming, Judith’s perception of Pat and Sam as having a flawless marriage further highlights how fractured hers and Steve’s is, pulling them further apart. 

The effects of their parents’ splintering relationship show in Stephanie and Emmy more prominently as the movie progresses, as Stephanie experiences peer pressure while attempting to make friends her age, and Emmy deals with unfamiliar feelings of fear and instability stemming from her grandmother’s death. The collapse of their parents’ relationship emotionally isolates the two girls as they face their own personal challenges while not fully understanding what is happening to their parents and why. 

Hama-Brown shared insight into some of the different themes throughout “Seagrass,” as well as her goals in creating it, during an interview with the Technique. 

What is the story behind how “Seagrass” came to fruition?

“I definitely [started] with some ideas around a family going to a retreat and it being the breakdown of family, but I knew from the outset that it wasn’t so much about whether the family would kind of collapse or not. For me, it was more about the internal worlds of the characters and the sense of uncertainty and this feeling [of] a loss of foundation within all of them. That was something that I knew, right from the start, was the central theme. [Even though] I expanded into so many different themes, [it would work] as long as everything tied back to that.”

I felt like there were different themes within each character; how did you come up with each character’s journey and how
their story-line would go? 

“I think I knew early on the general main thing each character was tackling. [Emmy] is encountering death for the first time and [it’s] shocking her to her core…[e]ven though she is so young, she’s really encountering some very profound fears around death and trying to wrap her head around what that means and what the idea of impermanence means in general. For Stephanie’s character, I knew that, [at her] age, she’s really seeking a sense of belonging [that] partially has to do with her mixed-race identity, but [it mainly] has to do with finding her place in the world as a young girl moving into teenagehood, and all the pressures that go along with that and wanting, more than anything, to belong. Then, for Judith, I knew from the beginning that she was having a kind of identity crisis. Not only is she questioning her place in the world as a mother, [and] as a wife, but she’s also questioning her place as a Japanese-Canadian person and trying to understand more about who she is…[T]hey all come back to uncertainty.” 

Switching topics a bit here, would you say that Judith is representative of people’s expectations
for their mothers?

“Absolutely. I think there are so many expectations around motherhood, and Judith is grappling with her own expectations. [Y]ou see her talk a bit about [how a lot of] these expectations [came] from her mother [because], as she says in the film, [her mother] didn’t have the same life that [she] does. [Her mother] had a much harder life in some ways…[and] didn’t have time to think about her own happiness [because she] had to think about her duty and responsibility to her family. And although Judith…wants to move beyond that and find self-actualization, she’s still coming up against guilt around what motherhood looks like. And she’s maybe holding on to a model that isn’t right for her [and]…in many ways, that could be one of the central conflicts for her character. I think people who don’t have a more complex understanding [of] motherhood may miss that in some ways and not understand why she’s acting the way she is. But…people who do have a deeper understanding of motherhood and the complexities of it get [that] she’s trying her best to do everything for her family, and sometimes she’s falling short, or she’s falling short in the ways that she thinks she shouldn’t be but not standing up in the way that she actually needs to.”

How did your identity and experiences as a Japanese-Canadian person factor into making the movie?

“[T]here are some projects that look more [at] the incarceration of Japanese-Canadians and Americans. But I wanted to look at the trickle-down effect and inter-generational trauma from that [part of history]. It’s something that I haven’t seen explored in films much, maybe in some documentaries, but not…in this way. I wanted to put something forward that felt honest and truthful…Someone said to me once, ‘Oh, Judith didn’t…care to learn [about her heritage],” [which] is a misinterpretation because it’s [so common] in the Japanese-Canadian community. There is so much loss of history and culture; Personal family history is not something my grandparents’ generation talked about. [That] loss of culture comes from the fracturing of communities because Japanese-Canadians were dispossessed of their homes, and they were never able to return to a Japanese-Canadian community…. So… I wouldn’t say it’s Judith’s fault; this is part of the trauma. This is part of the trickle-down effect.” 

Does that trickle-down effect play into the Juxtaposition of Judith and Pat as people of Asian descent?

“So, Pat’s character is Chinese-Australian. [Because of that,] he has a very different connection to his Asian identity. It was important to see this contrast between two people of Asian heritage [with] different relationships to their Asian identity. I think sometimes it’s easy, in film, to blend everything together and that’s not what I wanted to do with this film. I wanted to show a very specific identity and how, in a sense…it brings up a lot of uncomfortable feelings [in Judith] that he has at this different connection. Because…people come from so many different walks of life, it’s important to show those different walks of life
with their identity.”

Why do you think it is important for people to see your debut
feature film, “Seagrass”?

“There’s a few things I want to put out into the world. The film explores what people call ‘casual racism,’ like microaggressions, [which are] a very insidious form of racism…[S]ince this film is set in the 90s, we didn’t have these words in the general lexicon…but now, in the current day, we’re starting to have
more discussions around it. 

Back in the 90s, if you tried to bring it up, it’d be like, ‘Oh, well, I’m just joking.’ These things still do happen; it’s just that we’re starting to talk about them. So, for me, it was important to explore that type of racism so that there’s more discussion around it.

 And, of course, looking at the Japanese-Canadian identity and history. And, you know, I think Japanese-Americans can also probably relate to a lot of it…I think there are a lot of people who still don’t know much about this horrific time in history in both the US and Canada, and I didn’t feel the need to explain all the history, but I was interested in putting it in the story in the hopes that people will reflect on it and potentially look into it more if they don’t know much about it.”

“Seagrass” is a poignant, visually mesmerizing film that combines the impact of grief on a crumbling marriage, as well as on the children witnessing the relationship’s downfall.