Wednesday, February 18, 2015

In DRUNKTOWN'S FINEST, Sydney Freeland explores life in today's American-Indian town

Hard to believe, but it's been 27 years since the last really good movie -- Smoke Signals -- about modern-day American Indians hit the screen. DRUNKTOWN'S FINEST, the new film from first-time/full-length filmmaker Sydney Freeland, is not in that league -- it doesn't possess the poetry: visual from director Chris Eyre, verbal from screen-writer Sherman Alexie -- but it is still a movie worth seeing. More "modern," due to its inclusion of a transgendered character, as well as an adopted Indian raised by "whites," and of course the usual alcohol-problemed guy, the movie touches some of the new "bases" while remaining a relatively honest look a society ever in transition and trying to hold on to what's best about its past.

Ms Freeland, pictured at left, works in a realistic mode, while allowing a little leeway for the usual Indian "visions" thing. But she also lets her characters -- a couple of them, anyway -- appreciate the irony and humor of some of their "spirit" endeavors. And her New Mexico scenery is, as expected, often a pleasure to view.

As a screenwriter, Freeland's plot and dialog tend toward the plain and believable, despite maybe a coincidence or two too many; as director, she has surrounded herself with a professional crew, while keeping things moving along at a good clip and drawing decent performances from her mostly adept cast.

In her screenplay, Freeland gives us three main characters, the (somewhat) bad-boy-with-a-firewater-problem Luther (Jeremiah Bitsui, above), transgendered Felixia (newcomer Carmen Moore, below),

and the adoptee struggling with identity issues (MorningStar Angeline, below). All three characters are connected in ways that will not become apparent for some time. Fortunately, their connection does not insist on some clever plot surprise; it's just part of typical small-scale reservation life.

The film begins with the statement that this town is more likely a place to leave than a place to live. Two of our three characters are trying to get out, while the other is being prevented from getting in. What the moviemaker appears to be telling them -- and us, of course -- is that they ought to try to find some way to bring their life and location together.

To that end we meet some of the subsidiary characters: the kindly grandparents (one of whom is shown, above left), the problemed parents of two of our kids, and the far-too-into-the-drug-and-booze-culture friends of the three. Yet no one and nothing is held up as villainous and evil. We can understand and sympathize with the whole batch we meet here.

Finally, if things come together a little too easily, at least Ms Freeland does not tie up every loose end and smooth over all the rough patches. The finale -- which involves a young girl running (Magdelena Begay, below)-- reminded me of the ending in the current and quite exceptional Oscar nominee, Timbuktu. Except that here, the running is something positive and wonderful. It lifts our spirits -- as does, despite its flaws and pretty much in its entirety, Drunktown's Finest.

From Indion Entertainment the movie, running 92 minutes, opens this Friday in New York City at the Quad Cinema. Elsewhere? No idea, but as the film is a product of Sundance, with Robert Redford credited as an executive producer, one would imagine the film might open at one of the several Sundance Cinemas.

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