Pure Grit


Sharmaine Weed doing what she loves.

(2021) Documentary (Bankside) Sharmaine Weed, Savannah Martinez, Brandon Weed, Charity Weed, Kashe Weed, Amari Bercier. Directed by Kim Bartley

 

Native Americans in the 21st century face many challenges, not the least of those they have faced since European colonizers came to steal their land from them. They seek to retain their cultural identity while fitting in to a modern world. They do that while living on reservations where economic opportunities are extremely limited, where most live in poverty and where many are plagued by alcohol and drug addiction.

For Sharmaine Weed, a Shoshone living on the massive Wind River reservation in Wyoming – “God’s country” as she puts it early on in the film – escape is through bareback horse racing. This isn’t the type of racing you see at Churchill Downs; it is extremely dangerous, as Sharmaine found out firsthand when her sister Charity rode for the first time, and suffered grievous injuries leaving her disabled. Sharmaine took a year off to help care for her sister, and her sister’s daughter.

She is back riding now, for the first time since her sister’s injury, and sporting a new girlfriend – Sharmaine is one of the few lesbians on the reservation – Savannah. The two are very much in love. But things at home are getting rough; her younger brother Kashe is turning abusive and Savannah wants Sharmaine to move to Denver. So Sharmaine gets a job out there and puts together enough money to buy a horse to run the summer racing season. Sharmaine looks at it as an opportunity for a fresh start – but things don’t run entirely to plan as they generally have a habit of doing.

Bartley spent three years shadowing Sharmaine and her patience pays off in a rich portrait of a family trying to stay afloat in difficult conditions and specifically of a young woman with fire, passion and determination who has her sights set on a goal, but is pragmatic enough to recognize that it isn’t worth sacrificing everything for. She is aware of the traps that reservation life offer – the despair, the alcoholism, the drug addiction – and she manages to avoid them, largely because of her dogged refusal to surrender to them. Her love for horse racing also carries her through, and she’s good enough at it that she can survive and thrive in that world.

Her relationship with Savannah is complicated; Savannah is six years younger and is still just barely old enough to drink legally. Her mind is still on things that Sharmaine has long since moved beyond (if they were ever important to her in the first place), and that puts a strain on their relationship. Savannah wants to enjoy life; Sharmaine wants to build something permanent. It’s not always the love that makes a relationship strong; sometimes it’s a matter of being on the same page in life. There’s nothing wrong with a young woman of 21 wanting to party, dye her hair, and in general be concerned more about less vital things. There is also nothing wrong with a young woman of 27 turning her eyes to the future. We’ve all been in relationships with people who wanted different things with their life. Maybe we loved those people with a passion, but a viable relationship just wasn’t possible.

Bartley does her own cinematography and it is often breathtaking. Horses leaving tracks in the Wyoming snow, drone shots of the endless prairie, the Weed family out hunting and fishing together. We quickly understand that the hunting isn’t done for sport; this is how the family puts food on the table. That they thank the animals they kill for their food for providing them with sustenance is a part of their cultural heritage.

We rarely get such an intimate glimpse at reservation life, and this one is a particularly thorough one. We can see the willingness to fight in Sharmaine’s eyes as she does her damnedest to make a life for herself that is free of drugs and alcohol. The movie could have used a little bit of work on the editing; some of the story progresses in a kind of an uneven manner. The film could have used a smoother flow to it and some of the transitions are a bit abrupt.

The movie is an Irish-American co-production, and is making its North American premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival in California today. Unfortunately, that particular film festival doesn’t have a streaming component, so you will likely have to wait until the movie makes an appearance at a festival near you, which it should do in the Fall or Spring. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up on one streaming service or another shortly after that. This is a strong movie about a person you can’t help but admire and I strongly recommend it.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot. Inspiring and intense.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story doesn’t flow as naturally as it might.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Wind River reservation, where Charmaine and her family live, is the seventh largest in the United States, and is home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Rider
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Learning to Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs and Englishmen

The Place Beyond the Pines


Ryan Gosling wonders why he's always cast as a great driver.

Ryan Gosling wonders why he’s always cast as a great driver.

(2012) Drama (Focus) Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, Mahershala Ali, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Ben Mendelsohn, Harris Yulin, Bruce Greenwood, Olga Merediz, Robert Clohessy, Kayla Smalls, Jennifer Sober, Luca Pierucci, Gabe Fazio, Brian Smyj, Greta Seacat, Ephraim Benton, Vanessa Thorpe, Sabrina Lott. Directed by Derek Cianfrance   

As the saying goes, the sins of the father are visited upon the sons. This is, I suppose, a way of tying together the behaviors of a son that ape those of his father, often to the detriment of the son.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a story told in three parts. The first concerns Luke Glanton (Gosling), a skilled motorcycle stunt driver who as part of a travelling carnival moves from town to town. The buff, bleach blonde Glanton doesn’t seem to have a problem finding women to sleep in much as a sailor has a girl in every port. In Schenectady, that girl is Romina (Mendes), a waitress who doesn’t appear to have much more to look forward to than sore feet and occasional liaisons with men she probably shouldn’t have them with. A baby results from this union and Luke impulsively decides to quit the wandering life to settle down and help raise the baby.

However, Romina has moved on somewhat since her fling with Luke and has found a steady boyfriend in Kofi (Ali),  who is willing to help raise baby Jason as his own. Romina though has a soft spot for her bad boy who wants to do the right thing. Unfortunately Luke has fallen in with Robin (Mendelsohn), a small-time criminal who runs an auto body shop. It is he who puts the idea in Luke’s head that the easiest way to support his kid properly is to rob banks. Luke, barely able to make ends meet on his own, slowly finds it to be a good idea. Thing like this, however, rarely remain good for long.

The second part of the story belongs to Avery Cross (Cooper), a cop whose father (Yulin) – a judge and a local power broker – doesn’t approve of his son’s career choice and is perfectly willing to express his opinions. Avery and his wife Jennifer (Byrne) are busy raising a one-year-old son on their own when Avery is shot on the job. He is at home rehabilitating but is anxious to get back to work. Jennifer is torn – she wants space at home to raise her kid, but is terrified Avery’s next encounter with violence won’t end so fortunately.

Avery gets wind of some corrupt cops, led by Detective Deluca (Liotta), Avery’s partner and friend Scott (Fazio) and Doc (Pierucci). At first Avery kind of lets things go but when he realizes that with every act of compromise he’s getting in deeper with these guys, he decides to blow the whistle. This won’t be easy particularly since he doesn’t know how high the corruption goes. Is Chief Wierzbowsky (Clohessy) clean? Can he trust District Attorney Killcullen (Greenwood)?

The final part of the story takes place 15 years afterwards as Avery’s troubled son AJ (Cohen) moves from a more urban school to Schenectady where his father grew up. Avery, whose ambitions as a cop have blossomed into a run for State Attorney General , doesn’t really have time for his rap-spewing drug-addled boy. At the new school he meets Jason (DeHaan), a kind of quiet smart kid who hits it off with AJ based on both boys love of getting high.

AJ is definitely trouble but Jason isn’t exactly turning down time with the boisterous and braggadocios boy. However, he will discover that AJ’s dad and his own have a connection, one which binds the two boys together in a dark and serious way. As Jason investigates that connection, the lives of the two boys and everyone around them will undergo a profound change.

Cianfrance, who helmed the critically acclaimed Blue Valentine which in many ways has some of the same attributes as this – great intensity, top notch acting, a storyline which doesn’t shrink from real life issues and ultimately not always easy to watch. Cianfrance is highly skilled at his craft and is most certainly a talent to keep an eye out for; this is a movie that shows a great deal of confidence from the opening extended tracking shot that follows Luke through the carnival to the final shot of Jason riding away from Schenectady, seemingly on the same road as his father with the same inevitable consequences. Yes, it is a shot of a young man embracing his freedom but there are troubled undertones – to my mind it’s brilliant.

Gosling and Cooper shine here. Both Oscar-nominated actors, I truly believe that over the next 20 years these are both going to be regular honorees at awards shows (including the Oscars) and Cooper in particular is likely to be a force to be reckoned with at the box office. Gosling seems less interested in that sort of thing, preferring to take roles that challenge him but who knows; maybe somewhere down the line he gets a plum franchise to make his own.

The two actors share but one scene and that for only moments, which further cements Cianfrance as a director unafraid to take chances. In the third act, Cooper is relegated to essentially a supporting role while Cohen and DeHaan take center stage. DeHaan has enormous potential with some big roles in his immediate future (he’ll be Harry Osborn in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 next summer)  and here he shows that he has the kind of searing presence that can mesmerize audiences.

What doesn’t work here are a couple of things. First, the damn shaky cam. I get that directors like to create a kind of kinetic cinematography that brings the audience into the film, creating additional dramatic tension but let me send a note to every director out there – it doesn’t work. What it really does is quite the opposite – I’ve watched people get motion sickness at films with the kind of hand held shenanigans you find here and when an audience is looking  away from the screen because the images are making their stomachs do flip flops, there’s a director who has a problem.

The character of AJ was a bit too trying for me as well. I have no doubt that there are a lot of kids out there who fit this bill – spoiled, hedonistic, lost souls whose only goal is to escape the lives that they have, which when they come from middle class or even upper class families can strain one’s sympathies. However the character was all wrong for this situation; when Jason has his confrontation with AJ the audience begins to root for some serious damage to be done to AJ and that doesn’t serve the film well. The story deserves better than that; if AJ had at least a few redeeming characteristics it would add a great deal more power to the story. As it is, the audience’s rooting interest becomes all too easy. While the story really is about the changes that come to Jason, it adds a little more something to the film if AJ also transforms and you don’t get the sense that he does, despite the twinkle in his eye near the end of the film.

This is a movie I respected more than liked. The story felt very real, and the economic pressures on both Luke and Avery that drive some of their moral decisions are those felt by millions of families each and every day. While I would be a little surprised if either Gosling, Cooper or DeHaan received awards season recognition – not that they don’t deserve it but more because of when the movie came out and how little publicity it’s received – I have to say that this is a movie that will push you into looking around you more than entertaining you. The late Gene Siskel made it plain that slice of life movies were among his favorites and mine too as well. However, some slices are more bitter than others.

REASONS TO GO: Really tremendous acting, particularly from Gosling and Cooper. An interesting story.

REASONS TO STAY: Too much shaky cam. You just want to punch AJ in the face.

FAMILY VALUES:  Swearing throughout, a bit of violence, some teen drug use and drinking and a couple of sexual references..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was filmed in and around Schenectady, NY whose name translates from the Mohawk for “beyond the pine plains.” Also, the banks seen being robbed here are all real working banks in the Schenectady area.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100; all in all the reviews are pretty good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Conviction

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Broken