Drunktown's Finest: Sundance Review

Drunktown's Finest H 2013
Peter Holland, Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Native American themes get a fresh look in three-handed drama.

Sydney Freeland's debut is set near the Navajo reservation where she was raised.

PARK CITY — Imagine an indie film about young Native Americans, and you'll quickly come up with the themes running through Sydney Freeland's Drunktown's Finest. There's alcoholism, of course. Poverty and the scarcity of decent jobs. The search for a coherent self-image, particularly in terms of balance between tradition and contemporary Anglo-American mores. Yet Freeland's debut, despite being much more drama than comedy, has an easy approach to its subject matter, producing a film that feels not like a hand-wringing social studies project but a story yanked from the filmmaker's hometown, thrown on screen before its individual dramas hardened into allegories. Commercial prospects beyond Native American communities and urban arthouses may be limited, but on video the film should rank as one of the more effective in its subgenre.

The script revolves around three young people raised in a New Mexico Navajo community; Sick Boy (Jeremiah Bitsui), who has enlisted in the Army to support his family but is at risk of getting booted before basic training; Nizhoni (Morningstar Angeline Wilson), who was adopted by white parents and spent most of her adolescence in faraway private schools; and Felixia (Carmen Moore), a pre-op transsexual who secretly turns tricks while living with her tradition-minded grandparents on the reservation.

The film spends about a third of its running time fleshing out the problems each character faces, then starts having their stories intersect. Sick Boy, an expectant father with a macho side, meets Felixia when he's high and doesn't realize what he's in for when she invites him to a party; Nizhoni, reluctantly doing volunteer work on the reservation (she's been raised to believe it's a dangerous place) finds clues about her biological family that will connect her to Felixia as well.

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The structure is less schematic than it sounds, placing each point of interconnection in plausible sequence with other storylines. Felixia, for instance, has decided to audition for a Women of the Navajo pin-up calendar, hoping to get through the process without anyone realizing she was born a boy. Refreshingly, she suffers no persecution at home: Her grandfather, a medicine man given to occasional philosophical speeches, draws on tribal lore of the Nadleeh, or "third gender," to understand her role in the world.

While Freeland's plotting is graceful, there are occasional moments of stiffness in the dialogue itself, brief rough patches her largely neophyte cast can't fix in the delivery. The exception is Bitsui, a veteran actor (he played Victor on Breaking Bad) who takes a potentially unsympathetic character -- Sick Boy only has to stay out of trouble for a week to get into basic training, and he can hardly stay sober for a day -- and draws out his sense of responsibility and tenderness. All storylines converge on a tribal ritual in which Sick Boy's sister, who just hit puberty, is officially declared a woman; Freeland is subtle enough not to emphasize how strongly the girl's public transformation mirrors the internal ones her protagonists are undergoing.

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Production Company: Indion

Cast: Jeremiah Bitsui, Carmen Moore, Morningstar Angeline Wilson, Shauna Baker, Kiowa Gordon, Elizabeth Frances, Luis Bordonad

Director-Screenwriter: Sydney Freeland

Producers: Chad Burris, Mateo Frazier

Executive producers: Robert Redford

Director of photography: Peter A. Holland

Production designer: Kevin Pierce

Music: Mark Orton, Joel Pickard

Costume designer: Darryl Garica, Jr.

Editor: Harry Yoon

Sales: Andrew Herwitz, The Film Sales Company

No rating, 92 minutes