Producers: Tyler Hagan and Sara Blake   Director: Meredith Hama-Brown   Screenplay: Meredith Hama-Brown   Cast:  Ally Maki, Luke Roberts, Nyha Huang Breitkreuz, Remy Marthaller, Chris Pang and Sarah Gadon   Distributor: Game Theory Films  

Grade: B-

A husband and wife go to a couples’ retreat on an island off the coast of British Columbia in an effort to fix their troubled marriage but are worse off by the end of their stay than they were when they arrived.  So are the two young daughters who accompany them; they’re happy best friends at the start but their bond frays over the course of their stay.

As is revealed gradually, the family’s decision to come to the retreat is the result of Judith’s (Ally Maki) reaction to the death of her mother.  The loss makes her realize that she’s failed to come to terms with her Japanese heritage in general and with memories of her family’s poverty, as well as its relocation to an internment camp during World War II.  All of this has left her emotionally shattered, and affected her attitude toward her white husband Steve (Luke Roberts).

They try to maintain stability during the early days at the camp, where they have a seaside cottage.  But the relationship becomes increasingly fraught as Judith finds Steve resistant to the confidence-building exercises encouraged by the staff in group therapy. Both of them are also exasperated by the example of another interracial couple, Japanese-Canadian Pat (Chris Pang) and his Caucasian wife Carol (Sarah Gadon), regulars at the camp who find that the regimen refreshes their marriage.  Invidious comparisons with their happiness irritate Steve and make Judith even more morose.

Of course, Pat and Carol are not only well-off but childless, by choice, and as Carol confides to Judith, she’s not unhappy about it.  The pressure of parentage is an added element in the deterioration of Judith and Steve’s marriage: she tends to be more rigid with the girls, and he less so—which only exacerbates their attitude toward one another.  

The situation is made more problematic because their daughters, eleven-year old Stephanie (Nyha Huang Breitkreuz) and six-year old Emmy (Remy Marthaller), find their closeness imperiled as well.  Under the rather lax supervision provided by camp authorities, Stephanie is drawn to other kids her own age, which makes shy Emmy feel isolated and friendless.  Stephanie finds herself inching toward behavior her parents might not approve of (and is taken aback when some kids refer to her “exotic” face), while Emmy broods more and more on her grandmother’s passing, especially after she hears a tale from other kids about a cave on the beach where one can encounter the spirits of the departed.  She also becomes entranced with a purple beach box that floats in the community swimming pool, to the extent that she steals it for herself.  Stephanie’s reaction to that causes a rupture between the girls that could prove disastrous.  Meanwhile Judith grows more volatile and Steve increasingly bitter.

“Seagrass” introduces a mood of supernatural mystery as Norm Li’s camera prowls around the cabin, following certain characters—Judith and Emmy—as they search for the source of odd noises, fearing that they might represent signs of the deceased mother/grandmother reaching out to them. (An image of a worm crawling out of the ground after a torrential storm is suggestive of their concern.)   And indeed the overall look of the island, as captured in Li’s cinematography and Louisa Birkin’s production design, registers an atmosphere of darkness and foreboding.  (The film was shot on Gabriola Island, one of the Gulf Islands in the Salish Sea.)  Shun Ando’s measured editing and Oscar Vargas’ stark, sparse score add to that tone.

The performances contribute to the effect writer-director Meredith Hama-Brown is cultivating.  Maki embodies Judith’s increasing descent into furious discontent with grave intensity, obsessively scrubbing a blanket her mother had sewn from the remnants of worn sweaters on which Steve has spilled wine; everything culminates in a dance in which she comes across as practically possessed. Meanwhile Roberts maintains a more controlled façade, though he rebels during some of the therapy exercises he hates and turns openly snappish near the close, both toward Pat, whom he suspects of getting too close to his wife, and Judith, when she charges him with hidden racism.  Even more impressive, in their way, are young Breitkreuz and Marthaller, the former deeply conflicted and the latter almost in a trance.

This is a film that can meander and feel sluggish at times, but that also offers moments of piercing observation and haunting insight.