'Te Ata': Film Review

Te Ata Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Inspirational but bland.

Q'orianka Kilcher of 'The New World' plays the title role in this biopic of the famed Native-American performer.

That it was produced by the Chickasaw Nation signals that the film about famed Native American performer Te Ata will be nothing less than worshipful. This gauzily photographed biopic certainly fulfills its mission of educating audiences about its culturally important but little-known central figure. Unfortunately, the film too often comes across as saccharine, lacking the steeliness that its subject must have possessed to have accomplished as much as she did. Te Ata ultimately feels more suitable for classroom than mainstream consumption.  

Nonetheless, the film tells a fascinating tale. Te Ata (Q'orianka Kilcher, The New World), born Mary Frances Thompson in 1895, grew up in Indian Territory that would eventually become Oklahoma. Her uncle, Douglas Johnson (Graham Greene), was governor of the Chickasaw Nation from 1898 to 1902 and again from 1904 to 1939. Mary attended Oklahoma College for Women, where she came to the attention of a drama teacher (Cindy Pickett) who encouraged her to join her class. After seeing Mary struggling with Shakespeare, the teacher encouraged her to perform the songs and stories of her native culture. Although her father (Gil Birmingham) doesn’t go along with her show business aspirations, he suggests her stage name, which translates as "bearer of the morning."

Faster than you can say "montage," which is one of the film's primary techniques, Te Ata tours the country as part of a variety show, wowing audiences with her exotic performances. She even makes it to Broadway and eventually the White House, where she's befriended by Eleanor Roosevelt and accorded the honor of sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom. Along the way she meets and falls in love with Clyde Fisher (Mackenzie Astin), an astronomer 17 years her senior, who, as the film depicts, proposes by inserting a note reading "Will you marry me?" into the lens of a telescope.

Director Nathan Frankowski, working from a screenplay by Esther Luttrell, tells the uplifting story in an old-fashioned style that, with the exception of one powerful scene in which Te Ata and Clyde sit uncomfortably through a cartoon depicting Native Americans in the broadest of stereotypes, barely hints at any turmoil. The film indulges in such pseudo-poetic touches as having its heroine repeatedly come into contact with a white wolf that might as well have "symbolism" written on its fur. The narrative also jumps haphazardly to the point where crucial information seems to be missing.

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That the film works to the extent that it does is largely due to the superb performance by Kilcher, who imbues her starring turn with a radiance and magnetism that makes you fully believe in her character's ability to woo audiences. Even when replicating Te Ata's performing style, which to contemporary viewers may seem old-fashioned and artificial, Kilcher proves mesmerizing.

During the end credits Te Ata features archival footage of its real-life inspiration who continued to perform for decades and who died in 1995 at the age of 99. It's compelling enough to make you wish that her story had been told in documentary fashion instead.

Production: Chickasaw Nation
Distributor: Paladin
Cast: Q'orianka Kilcher, Gil Birmingham, Graham Greene, Mackenzie Astin, Brigid Brannagh, Cindy Pickett
Director/editor: Nathan Frankowski
Screenwriter: Esther Luttrell
Producer: Paul Sirmons
Executive producer: Robyn Elliott
Director of photography: Ben Huddleston
Production designer: Andrew White
Costume designer: Beverly Safier
Composer: Bryan E. Miller

Rated PG, 105 minutes