|Jeremiah Bitsui as SickBoy|
Dir. Sydney Freeland
Starring: Jeremiah Bitsui, Carmen Moore, Morningstar Angeline Wilson
Review By Greg Klymkiw
"They say this land isn't a place to live, it's a place to leave, so why do people stay?"With these words, intoned matter-of-factly by Nizhoni (Morningstar Angeline Wilson) over the shimmering lights of Dry Lake, New Mexico, writer-director Sydney Freeland announces her thematic concerns right off the top.
Drunktown's Finest is a film about a place many of us will never know, but as the sun rises over a dusty highway and the evocative strains of "Beggar to a King" by the legendary 60s Native American band Wingate Valley Boys, we're drawn into an alternately haunting and vibrant montage of a Navajo reservation where life ekes itself out with the dull drip of molasses - a place of aimlessness, alcoholism, repression, violence and for some, hope that a future imbued with promise will be a dream come true.
Workshopped at the Sundance Institute and executive produced by Robert Redford, Freeland's screenplay focuses on three Native American characters: the aimless petty criminal SickBoy (Jeremiah Bitsui) who is trying to keep his nose clean until he needs to show up for duty as an Afghanistan-bound soldier, Felixia (Carmen Moore), a transgendered hooker looking for both acceptance and a way out and Nizhoni (Wilson), a young Native American woman raised by affluent white parents, but searching for her cultural identity. The script paints indelible portraits of real people and bravely tells their stories as seemingly disconnected pieces of an anthology. Freeland coaxes fine, naturalistic performances and her mise-en-scene presents a strong sense of place.
Alas, the script eventually takes a too-pat turn when the three characters' lives intersect and the film starts to feel too conventional in all the wrong ways. It veers from a compelling slice-of-life to shoehorned by-rote indie melodrama which, in spite of occasional moments of truth, falls short of the promise it displays in its first half. In spite of this, the film is well worth seeing for all the elements which do work beautifully. It signals a burgeoning talent and a close look into a lifestyle and cultural backdrop that seems all too familiar, but one in which we're still imbued with a sense of freshness and vitality.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: **½ Two-and-a-half Stars
Drunktown's Finest is the Nov19 Opening Night Gala at the Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival (WAFF 2014).
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