Off the Rez: TV Review

A Native American version of Hoop Dreams offers a deeply complex and intimate portrait of what it is to grow up marginalized in American society and how to overcome history. 

Jonathan Hock's basketball tale about a Native American high schooler airs on TLC on May 14.

Does the anguished history of a people inspire future generations to achieve new heights or is it a millstone around one’s neck, ensuring a continued legacy of hardship and despair? For Shoni Schimmel, a top female high school basketball prospect who grew up on Oregon’s Umatilla Indian Reservation, that question is at the center of her quest to make it in a sport with few Native American participants.

Written and directed by Jonathan Hock (Through the Fire, 30 for 30), Off the Rez paints a deeply affecting portrait of Schimmel and her family as the fledgling star makes the move from the reservation to Portland, Ore., where she ascends to national stardom as a junior at Franklin High School.

“Shoni has been taught a lot of the history,” Lillian Moses, Shoni’s grandmother, says in one of the many one-on-one interviews threaded throughout the engaging film. “So when she plays, it’s almost like she plays for the Indian people, and she plays hard.”

Ancestral pride is often not a clear-cut matter, however, as the film’s most fascinating character, Shoni’s fiery mother, Ceci Moses, illustrates.

“The reservation life is a good thing, but it also can be a bad thing,” Ceci says. “It can hold you down, it can hold you back, because there are a ton of Indians that have a lot of talent, and they just don’t do anything with it.”

Once a basketball prodigy in her own right, Ceci is convinced she was passed over by college scouts because of her ethnicity, and her reflections about her own career are by turns bitter and defiant. 

“People don’t usually believe in Native Americans,” Ceci says. “But really probably the hardest part is most of the Native Americans don’t believe that they have a chance because of what’s happened in the past with the Native American people.”

Like Steve James’ award-winning basketball documentary Hoop Dreams, the sport itself serves as a metaphor and the conduit for a story about perseverance, racial politics and inner conflict. It also fills Off the Rez, which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, with an abundance of ready-made drama.

Ceci accepts a coaching job at Franklin so that she can personally foster Shoni’s development, and their impact on the formerly flailing team is immediate. It’s thrilling to watch Shoni light it up in her first game, scoring a school-record 42 points.

After finishing dead last in the conference the year before, Shoni and her younger sister Jude lead the team to the state tournament, and Shoni is soon ranked as the eighth-best high school player in the nation. But not all of her new neighbors prove so welcoming.

“We’ve had to endure racial slurs in the stands,” Shoni’s white father, Rick, says. “We had a note brought to our door that said, ‘Go back to the f---ing reservation.’ ”

After losing his job back on the reservation, Rick struggles to pay the mortgage on the Portland home where Ceci and the couple’s seven children now live. The bank threatens foreclosure, and Ceci — having sacrificed so much for Shoni — seems to falter under the pressure.

"They work really hard to mentally defeat the Native American, then the Native American gives up and quits, and a lot of them will go drinking and drugging,” Ceci laments, and for a moment you wonder whether that fatalism will send the family back to the reservation once and for all.

Despite scholarship offers from many of the nation’s top colleges, Shoni puts off making a decision as to which she’ll attend, and the film invites us to think she might opt out of school altogether to stay close to her family.

“We have been conditioned to fail,” an elder back on the reservation says. “But Shoni has caught a chance. This whole history of athletes not making it is riding on Shoni’s shoulders. Everybody is watching her.”

Shoni does persevere, of course, as a human being and as a player. Despite its hard dose of reality, there’s plenty of uplifting payoff in Off the Rez, and viewers who are not basketball fans will be riveted by the film’s tightly edited, climactic scenes of conference playoff games.

Without giving away what happens to Shoni and her family, the most satisfying part of Off the Rez is entering the lives of characters seldom seen on American television screens. Their struggles, self-doubt and, yes, triumphs make for an engrossing film, whatever one’s race, gender or tribe.

Twitter: @writerknowles