On a Native American reservation, a handful of lives are put under the microscope. As they slowly weave together, the traces of their decisions (some good, some poor) sketch a map rich in detail, low in coincidence and big on consequence. They’re the Navajo, and they are three: Nizhomi (Morning Star Wilson) is adopted by a white family and raised without knowledge of her original heritage; Felixia (Carmen Moore) is a transexual, struggling with people’s preconceptions of her and still fighting against the waves of prejudice; and finally Sick Boy (Jeremiah Bitsui), a crook with good intentions who keeps getting pulled into old depraved habits, but trying to find a path that means a better life for him and his pregnant wife. Their paths weave at differing points, the map increasing in richness and forming a true, multi-faceted representation of a culture that is in danger of becoming all but extinct; director Sydney Freeland is our cartographer, and finds some unexplored places along with more familiar ones.
The divide between the modern Navajo culture and the traditional provides a lush, strong backdrop to this movie, but Freeland is wise to keep the focus on these three people, all stereotypes to a certain extent but with the gravity of the culture they sometimes want to escape, but in some cases want to discover; making them multi-dimensional. While Sick Boy’s myriad trials and tribulations smack of seen-this-done-that, containing the most straightforward plot of the three with its guns, drugs and an attempt to escape them, the most emotionally arresting tale is Nizhomi’s. Her quest to rediscover her estranged family feels rooted in the sad reality of the stigma between Native and Colonial American relationships that still blights those parts of this otherwise beautiful landscape, and features a small breakout role for Wilson. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Moore, as her performance as Felixia is constantly stuck in a place where half-developed impulses and student-film reactions see her fall far behind the rest of the talented cast. It’s a shame, as she otherwise exudes an aura that’s immediately seductive – but never convincing.
In the bigger picture – and Drunktown’s Finest is all about the bigger picture – there’s still plenty of the traits to be associated with good Sundance efforts; a hyperlocal context, wide open landscapes that mirror the people in it, and no lack of lyricism – albeit, perhaps borrowed from other movies, like a finale shot in slow-motion, in a similar vein to Short Term 12 last year. But such similarities, including those made with any other recent American movies, are all part of the same parcel – they say something about the country, and Drunktown’s Finest does it especially well. In slowing things down, we get a brief but illuminating look at the map these characters have helped add to, criss-crossing not only their parents’ tracks, but their ancestors’ too. Freeland understands there’s more to be discovered, and hands us the compass.