'A Different American Dream': Film Review

Courtesy of First Run Features
A sympathetic portrait that arrives too late for most viewers.

Three American-Indian tribes in North Dakota struggle to assert their values amid an oil boom in Simon Brook's new doc.

A couple of months ago, a documentary about Native Americans dealing with the impact of oil drilling on their land might have benefited from the media's attention to protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline. And given that new political leaders may soon override the Army Corps of Engineers and restart the pipeline's construction, there might again be a well-primed audience in a year. For the moment, though, Simon Brook's A Different American Dream must target viewers whose interest runs deeper than the currents of protest, those with a taste for more meditative fare. While the film won't make much of a wave in its niche theatrical bookings, it does explore the ways in which this complicated conflict differs from environmentalists' battles in other corners of the country.

More true to its title than viewers may expect, the doc cares more about underlying principles than the details of any one controversy. Its heart is with interviewees like Dr. Byron Baker, who, in the middle of expressing his tribe's concerns about stewardship of land they've held for generations, wonders aloud if oilmen even think of things in the same terms: Do the words "ancestral homeland" have any meaning to them, or do their own more itinerant lives give them no way of understanding those who value a piece of earth more than the money to be made exploiting it?

While some tribal representatives here speak of the effect oil royalties have had on the Native Americans who've received them — or shake their heads sadly at the sight of a yacht bought by previous tribal officials at the height of an oil boom — most take a longer view, focusing on issues that stretch decades beyond a temporary influx of cash. Other subjects do the tedious job of monitoring here-and-now pollution, watching for signs that safety regulations are being flouted. If the movie's account is often dry — brightened only by one scene in which Dr. Baker, perhaps for our benefit, teases a patient prepping for a colonoscopy — that's true to the unglamorous labor of standing guard over one's country. It isn't every day that the epic struggle between those who treasure the land and those who'd extract treasure from it boils up into conflict suitable for the evening news.

Distributor: First Run Features
Production companies: Brook Productions, Three Generations
Director: Simon Brook
Screenwriters: Simon Brook, Jane Wells
Producer: Jane Wells
Director of photography: Philippe Dorelli
Editors: Barbara Bossuet, Josie Miljevic
Composer: Pierre Esteve

Not rated, 84 minutes