It Will Be Chaos


Some journeys are more desperate than others.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) William L. Ewing, Manuel Barosa, Aregai Mehari, Giusi Nicolini, Cecilia Malmstrom, Enrico Letta, Cecile Kyenge, Wael Orfali, Bensalem Khaled, Domenico Lucano, Domenica Colapinto, Rafaelle Colapinto, Doha Orfali, Ribal Orfali, Leen Tayem, Baoul Tayem, Othman Tayem, Giovanni Costanzo, Biniam Bereked. Directed by Lorena Luciano and Filippo Piscopo

 

The movie opens up with the grim image of coffins being offloaded onto the Italian island of Lamperdusa. A ship carrying immigrants from Libya to Italy had capsized, and 360 refugees mostly from the Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia had drowned. One of the survivors, an ex-soldier from Eritrea named Aregai Mehari, lost two cousins in the tragedy. He shows their pictures on his cell phone, and at the trial of the inept captain calmly discusses the chaos of that night.

The mayor of Lamperdusa, Giusi Nicolini, is in a horrible position. The town is suffering from a stagnant economy and simply can’t handle the influx of people coming from Africa and the Middle East. She still manages to retain her compassion, correcting reporters “They are not illegal immigrants. They are refugees. Words matter.” She wants to help but is essentially powerless to do much more than providing limited assistance and sympathy.

We follow Aregai as he makes his way into Greece where the situation isn’t much better and might be, frankly, worse as he flees from drought and intense poverty in his native country. We also follow Wael Orfali and his young family as they flee the Syrian genocide, whose home was bombed into rubble just two weeks after they fled. He is stuck in Istanbul trying to get to family in Germany where he and his family might begin again. He is impatient almost to the point of hysteria, purchasing life jackets for his family  for a trip with a smuggler that may or may not happen and when relatives urge him to delay his departure because of rough weather in the Mediterranean bellows “I don’t care if we die. I just need to leave!”

The movie is one in a long line of documentaries about the current refugee crisis which is buffeting Europe and to an extent the United States as well. Most of these movies follow the travails of a specific refugee as they navigate an often frustrating and dehumanizing system that essentially passes them from one place to another with limited resources, no way to get work and left to dangle in the wind. Often the refugees, fleeing forces beyond their control, I can understand the anti-immigrant side to a certain extent; a nation can only support so many people with resources, jobs and property. There is a finite amount of money, goods and infrastructure to go around. However, the answer is not to demonize refugees and suspect that every refugee is a potential terrorist, rapist or criminal; most refugees simply want a better life and safety for their children. We can’t assume every refugee is legitimate; we also can’t assume that every refugee is not.

The problem I have with this movie is that it really doesn’t add anything to the conversation that I haven’t seen in several other documentaries. The points that they make that the bureaucracy handling the staggering influx of people is ill-equipped to handle it, that politicians are often unsympathetic and that refugees often face outright racism and are painted as scapegoats by an increasingly hostile European (and American) population.

Political bloviating on my part aside, the refugee crisis isn’t going away anytime soon and the situation isn’t as uncomplicated as it is sometimes made out to be. The movie exposes some of that if in a somewhat choppy manner. From a purely technical aspect, the editing between the two stories often is jarring and feels somewhat arbitrary. The filmmakers have their heart in the right place but in all honesty what we need more than a film that follows the refugees is one that shows us why it is so difficult for this situation to be managed. This movie shows some of that (and it’s generally the best moments in the film) but not enough to really make it a must-see.

REASONS TO GO: The story is heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The film doesn’t really add anything to the examination of the refugee crisis.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival before debuting on HBO.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire at Sea
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Before I Wake

Advertisements

Mudbound


In Mississippi, things are always black and white.

(2017) Drama (Netflix) Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks, Lucy Faust, Dylan Arnold, Rob Morgan, Kerry Cahill, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Rebecca Chulew, David Jensen, Geraldine Singer, Floyd Anthony Johns Jr., Henry Frost, Peter Schueller, Roderick Hill, Cynthia LeBlanc, Samantha Hoefer. Directed by Dee Rees

 

The generation that fought the Second World War has been called the Greatest Generation and who am I to argue? The fact remains however that not everyone in that generation was treated greatly. The African-American soldiers who fought for freedom were ironically denied it when they returned home. It would be 20 years before the Civil Rights era would be able to effectively call attention to the plight of African-Americans in a meaningful way.

Jamie McAllan (Hedlund) returns home from fighter pilot duty to his brother Henry (Clarke), their dad Pappy (Bans) and Henry’s wife Laura (Mulligan) trying to make things work on a farm that is literally a muddy bog especially when it rains which it does frequently in Mississippi. Henry sees the land as a symbol of his failures. Constantly denigrated by his racist father Henry isn’t a bad man but he is a weak one living in the shadow of his popular younger brother. Jamie though is partially broken; suffering from PTSD after his war experiences,

Also coming home from war is Ronsel Jackson (Mitchell) but to far different circumstances. His father, preacher Hap Jackson (Morgan) is a sharecropper on Henry’s land – well, kinda Henry’s land – who is exploited terribly by Henry who uses Hap as labor regardless of whether Hap is needed on his own farm. When Hap’s mule dies, Henry lets Hap use his own mule – for a price, a hefty one that benefits Henry who is having financial problems of his own. However, it not only adds a burden to Hap’s debt it makes it harder for him to pay it off. On top of it all Ronsel is back to being treated like a second class citizen after getting a taste of freedom in Europe. It is somewhat ironic that he is treated better in the country he helped conquer than in the country he fought for.

Jamie strikes up a friendship with Ronsel; the two men have shared experiences that bond them together. However, a friendship between a white man and an African-American man is simply not done in that time and place. It threatens the social order, and there are horrific consequences  for that.

After making a big splash at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Netflix purchased the film which has been one of the most prestigious in its current library with no less than four Oscar nominations (Netflix gave it a brief theatrical fun to qualify it). Critics fell all over themselves praising the movie as you can see by their scores below and there is certainly much to celebrate in this film but to be honest, it is also flawed.

The movie is badly undercut by narration made by various characters in the movie. The narration is often florid and draws attention away from the movie, the worst kind of narration possible. I’ve always wondered why filmmakers don’t trust their audiences to understand the images and dialogue they see and hear. Narration isn’t necessary; it’s intrusive and redundant.

The flip side is that the movie is beautifully shot. It isn’t so much beautiful images – the poverty and the rain-soaked mud fields aren’t what you’ll see on the average screensaver – but Rachel Morrison, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer, gives the images a dignity that uplifts the movie overall. And then there are the performances – few films are as well-acted as this one. Blige as Florence, the wise and compassionate mother won most of the kudos (and the Oscar nomination) but for my money it was Mitchell who was actually the real deal. Fresh off his triumph in Straight Outta Comption Mitchell is the moral center of the film. He is a man of pride but he’s also a man of compassion and conscience. He is able to respect a white man despite the wrongs done to him by white men; he is able to feel sympathy for his friend and the demons that haunt him. He is haunted by many of them himself.

The narration is a major problem that prevents me from really loving this film. To the good, it is a timely reminder that we live in an era when America was great according to the slogan. It wasn’t terribly great for those who weren’t white though, and that is part of what those sloganeers are attracted to. The attitudes that shape the movie have never gone away completely; they only went underground until 2016 when our President emboldened those who identify with Pappy to express their racism openly.

There is much good here although as I said this is a very flawed film. Any Netflix subscriber, particularly those who like their movies to be thought-provoking, should have this on their short list of must-see films on Netflix. It’s one I think that bears repeated viewings. Rees is certainly an emerging talent who has plenty to say. Now if we can just get her to stop using voiceovers…

REASONS TO GO: The cast is uniformly wonderful. The cinematography is downright amazing.
REASONS TO STAY: The voiceover narration is a bit obnoxious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence of the war variety as well as a graphic depiction of racially-motivated violence, profanity including racial epithets as well as some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blige became the first person ever nominated for an acting Oscar and best song Oscar for the same film, and Rachel Morrison was the first woman nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Giant
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Silencer

Bennett’s Song


In a family with fourteen kids, every night is a girl’s night out!

(2018) Family Comedy (Vision) Tara Reid, Dennis Haskins, Aphrodite Nikolovsky, Calhoun Koenig, Harley Wallen, Victoria Mullen, Morgan Nimmo, Arielle Olkhovsky, Joseph Ouelette, Dennis Marin, Aleksandra Luca, Evan Keoshian, La’Kenya Howard-Luster, Da’Mya Gogoua, Rees Curran, Cayleigh Brown, Maya Patel, Janellyn Woo, Lucas Yassayan, Chevonne Wilson. Directed by Harley Wallen

 

Family is family; they come in all shapes and sizes. One person’s idea of what a family is may be completely different than what another person might think they are. No two families are ever alike; they all have their own dynamics, their own issues.

\Susan Song (Nikolovsky) is a cheerful 40-something dentist who is a divorcee left with seven adopted kids of various ethnicities. She meets ex-MMA fighter and current gym owner Cole Bennett (Wallen), the son of a Saturday morning TV show host (Haskins) who something of a touchy-feely version of Bill Nye the Science Guy. He’s a widower who, like Susan, has been left raising seven adopted kids of various ethnicities on his own.

The two hit it off and begin dating – awkwardly. It becomes clear soon enough that the two belong together but a family of fourteen kids of varying ages and ethnicities is going to be no easy task to raise. With Pearl Song (Koenig) having dreams of pop stardom, the family soon realizes they are going to have to work together to make things work for everyone. With a neighbor (Reid) who seems hell-bent on making the new blended family miserable and incidents of racism causing anguish for some of the younger kids, that’s going to be easier said than done.

This is very much a family film in the vein of Cheaper By the Dozen and The Brady Bunch. There is definitely a warmth and charm generated by the film but unfortunately it isn’t enough to overcome glaring problems. Perhaps most glaring of all is the acting; it is wooden, stiff and unnatural. The line delivery sounds more like a script reading than a finished product. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is clunky, with the jokes sitcom-stale and hoary (“Sure she’s smart and pretty and she’s standing right behind me isn’t she”) in an inoffensive way. You don’t need to be vulgar to be funny but you don’t need to be inoffensive to be family-friendly either.

When your two biggest names come from Sharknado and Saved by the Bell you have problems. There’s just nothing here that approaches even the lowest standard of acceptable filmmaking. To be fair the writers do attempt to address 21st century family issues like racism, blended families, financial issues and bullying but the problem here is that it doesn’t address them believably.

I get that indie filmmaking sometimes requires a little bit of a lower bar when considering the inexperience of a newer cast and crew but this is more like a filmed version of a community theater play and a bad one at that. In fact, saying that is an insult to community theater and I don’t mean it to be. There’s nothing about this movie that I can recommend unless you’re itching to see Tara Reid in a villainous role.

REASONS TO GO: The acting is wooden and lifeless. The dialogue is cliché. The comedy is all recycled from sitcoms.
REASONS TO STAY: Their heart is in the right place.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dennison, who was 15 when the movie was released, was legally unable to see it in his native New Zealand.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Yours, Mine and Ours
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
Juliet, Naked

The Workshop (L’atelier)


Antoine gives his teacher a speculative look.

(2017) Drama (Strand) Marina Foïs, Matthieu Lucci, Florian Beaujean, Mamadou Doumbia, Mélissa Guilbert, Warda Rammach, Julien Souve, Issam Talbi, Olivier Thouret, Charlie Bardé, Marie Tarabella, Youcef Agal, Marianne Esposito, Thibaut Hernandez, Axel Caillet, Lény Sellam, Anne-Sophie Fayolle, Cédric Martinez, Chiara Fauvel, Jorys Leuthreau, Pierre Bouvier, Téva Agobian. Directed by Laurent Cantet

 

The act of writing is an act of revelation. No matter the format or genre, the writer never fails to reveal something about themselves. Sometimes that which is revealed is something dark and disturbing.

Celebrated novelist Olivia Dejazet (Foïs) is running a writer’s workshop for young people in the seaside town of Le Ciotat, near Marseilles. Once a prosperous shipyard, the mostly working class town has fallen on hard times. Unemployment is high and none of the teens who are attending the workshop have jobs. Apparently the purpose of the workshop is to give them something to do.

They are tasked with writing a thriller set in Le Ciotat. The youngsters debate whether to set it in present day or in the past, or in both utilizing flashbacks. The discussion is mostly friendly but there is one youth who is goading the others – Antoine (Lucci), a handsome and buff young man who insists that the novel be a murder mystery. That’s all well and good with the others but when it comes to motivation for the murder rather than something racially or financially motivated or a crime of passion, Antoine insists that it be more of a thrill crime – a sociopath who kills random people because he can. As he writes stories with this theme to read to the class, it is clear he is a very talented writer…and also that his imagination is disturbing to say the least.

Olivia begins to fixate on her young charge and does research, finding that he is watching right-wing nativist videos and shows an unhealthy obsession with guns and violence. Even as Olivia is drawn to him, she begins to fear him equally and what he might be capable of doing.

Cantet is the brilliant director of the brilliant The Class whose output since then hasn’t been released on American shores. The Workshop marks the first film in ten years by this director to get a U.S. release. Will this put him back on the art house radar the way The Class did in 2008? Probably not; the movie is more flawed than its predecessor.

Lucci, like all the other young people in the film, is an amateur actor local to Le Ciotat with no previous screen credit and he’s quite a find. Handsome and intimidating at times, he projects a sense of menace which is not so much overt but more venal than venomous. He seems hell-bent on pushing the buttons of everyone around him, sometime by saying things that are out-and-out racist or misogynist. Cantet hints that he truly believes some of those things but on the other hand there seems to be an ulterior motive that Antoine has in nearly every relationship he’s in with few exceptions. He despises his working class parents and everything they stand for but most of the right-wing commentaries he listens to disdain he unemployed, which he is.

The relationship between Antoine and Olivia is the central attraction here. The chemistry isn’t exactly sexual although there are hints that it might be. Olivia feels an odd compelling fascination that is mixed with outright and justifiable fear. As a writer, she’s curious about what Antoine is capable of. As a woman, she’s terrified over what Antoine is capable of. The resulting mix makes for a fascinating character study.

Unfortunately, none of the other kids in the class gets as much character development and the movie is long, drawn-out and slow paced which is an ingredient for American audiences switching to something less hard on their barely-there attention spans. That said, the film is still interesting – there are archival films of the shipyard’s heyday interspersed with the modern day action – and Cantet has a better handle on French social issues than almost any other director in France.

Readers in Miami can catch the film at the MDC Tower Theater this week. Tickets can be purchased here.

REASONS TO GO: The dynamic between Antoine and Olivia is intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is long and slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, teen drinking and disturbing dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted in the Un Certain Regarde category of the Cannes Film Festival in 2017.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Friend Dahmer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Where is Kyra?

Suburbicon


Matt Damon is having a really bad night.

(2017) Black Comedy (Paramount) Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac, Richard Kind, Gary Basaraba, Leith Burke, Karimah Westbrook, Tony Espinosa, Glenn Fleshler, Alex Hassell, Don Baldaramos, Ellen Crawford, Megan Ferguson, Corey Allen Kotler, Steven Shaw, Steve Monroe, Allen Wasserman, Rupert Pierce, Pamela Dunlap, Biff Yeager, Lauren Burns. Directed by George Clooney

 

Suburbicon is a black comedy. Suburbicon is a treatise on social injustice. Suburbicon is a crime drama. Suburbicon is a period piece. Suburbicon is all of those things and none of those things. It’s a pastiche of different things that flutter through the proscenium and then wither on the screen. It’s one of the most disappointing movies of 2017.

Based on an unproduced script by the Coen Brothers, Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov have added a bit of contemporary social commentary – white racists in a suburban planned community in the Northeast talk endlessly about erecting a giant wall around the home of the first African-American residents of the community but this is no mere Trump-bashing exercise although it is that too.

The arrival of the Meyers family into  lily-white planned suburban community in the Eisenhower 50s only shows the insidious racism lurking just beneath the surface of America’s golden age – and by implication, continues at present. However, that’s not the only story going on here. During a home invasion, Rose Lodge (Moore) dies of a chloroform overdose, leaving her grieving husband Gardner (Damon), son Nicky (Jupe) and twin sister Margaret (Moore again) to pick up the pieces.

Much of the comedy centers around the blatant consumerism of the suburban 50s and as well there are certain Coen moments (like an oily insurance investigator (Isaac) who figures out what’s going on or a chase scene between a thug (Fleshler) and Gardner in a VW and child’s bike, respectively) that will delight their diehard fans. Still, there aren’t enough of them to overcome the curiously flat energy and the wildly all-over-the-place script that derails the project despite the presence of high-wattage stars. There are enough moments to make it worth checking out, but not enough to go out of your way to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Matt Damon plays way against type. There are some occasional moments of offbeat humor.
REASONS TO STAY: The comedy is scattershot and the energy is flat. The soundtrack is annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence (some of it graphic), profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first time Clooney directed a film in which he did not also appear as an actor.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Paramount Movies, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Downsizing
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Finding Your Feet

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Frances McDormand demands answers in this Oscar-nominated film.

(2017) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Zeljko Ivanek, Lucas Hedges, Kerry Condon, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Peer Dinklage, Amanda Warren, John Hawkes, Clarke Peters, Kathryn Newton, Sandy Martin, Jerry Winsett, Samara Weaving, Christopher Berry, Malaya Rivera Drew. Directed by Martin McDonagh

 

There is nothing that compares to the pain of a parent whose child has been murdered. It is the unthinkable, the unimaginable – what every parent has nightmares about. Some unlucky parents don’t have to imagine though.

Mildred (McDormand) is one of those. Nine months have passed since her daughter Angela was raped and then set on fire by some sadistic freak. No progress whatsoever has been made in finding her killer. To make things worse, the spot where her daughter spent her last tortured minutes was on the site of three dilapidated billboards near enough to Mildred’s house that she must drive past them every time she leaves the house, where she can see the burn mark where her daughter gasped her last.

Her fury has threatened to consume her. She has to do something, anything to help her little girl get justice. So she marches into the ad agency that services the billboards and plops down five thousand bucks for the first month of a year-long rental. The three billboards are painted red with copy in big black letters: RAPED AND KILLED, AND STILL NO ARRESTS? and finally HOW COME CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?

The billboards have immediate and profound effect. Deputy Dixon (Rockwell), a drunken and violent racist creep who’d much rather be arresting black folks, is the first to see the messages. He informs Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) who goes ballistic but after asking Mildred politely to remove the billboards, he confesses that he has pancreatic cancer and he doesn’t want his family to have to deal with another unpleasant thing.

It turns out Willoughby is actually a decent sort who is trying his damndest to solve the case but there simply isn’t enough evidence. Dixon, who owes a lot to the chief is much more direct; he goes after Red Welby (Jones) who runs the ad agency and gives him a terrifying beating. Things begin to escalate in the war between the cops and Mildred; her surviving son Robbie (Hedges) is caught in the crossfire. Yet all is not what it seems to be in Ebbing, Missouri.

On the surface it seems like a very cut and dried story but as the movie unspools you quickly realize you’re seeing a work of uncommon depth and complexity. While it appears that there are some villainous characters in the story, there are in fact none. Even Dixon ends up finding some sort of redemption although it is hard to justify his previous behavior.

The acting in this movie is nothing short of astonishing. Three cast members received Oscar nominations – McDormand, Rockwell and Harrelson – and there easily could have been more. While it is McDormand’s movie, it is not hers alone. Watching her tightly controlled rage which from time to time her humanity breaks through is simply a clinic. We eventually find out that Mildred’s pain isn’t just because of the incompetence of the police; her last interaction with Angela literally sent her on the road to her fatal encounter. It’s some powerful stuff and shows how a great actress can take a well-written character and create a classic performance. If the competition for Best Actress weren’t so stiff this year she might well be a shoo-in. Harrelson also plays a decent sort with rough edges who is facing the end of his life and not necessarily with the dignity he would like to. Rockwell, who won a Golden Globe, may give the best performance of all as the loutish Dixon who literally comes through the fire a changed man.

It is hard to believe this is McDonagh’s third feature and as good as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths are, this is by far the best of the three. His background as a playwright shines through more in the writing than in the direction which is not stage-y in the least. However, the sense that the town is much smaller than it appears to be lingers throughout.

I would have liked to have seen less contrivance in some of the events; some things happen that appear to happen only because the plot requires them to. There is also a bit of a lull in the middle where it feels that the movie is hitting a plateau, but the ending is absolutely extraordinary. Making a great ending to a movie is something of a lost art but McDonagh seems to have mastered it.

Nearly all of the characters are dealing with some sort of pain, either physical or emotional. The movie is about that true but it is also about forgiveness, redemption and humanity in the face of intolerable grief. While this isn’t a perfect movie, it had the potential to be and if the second act had been a little better, this might have gotten a higher rating. Still, it stands out in a year of really great independent films as one that is going to be in our hearts and minds for a long time to come.

REASONS TO GO: The acting is Oscar-worthy throughout the cast. The characters are all riddled with pain in one way or another. The ending of the film is sublime.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the events feel a little bit contrived. The film loses momentum in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence, plenty of profanity and some brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film directed by McDonagh that didn’t feature Colin Farrell in a lead role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fargo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
In the Shadow of Iris

Te Ata


The nobility and majesty of the Chickasaw culture personified.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paladin) Q’orianka Kilcher, Gil  Birmingham, Graham Greene, Mackenzie Astin, Brigid Brannagh, Cindy Pickett, Jenni Mabrey, Marissa Skell, Boriana Williams, Don Taylor, Robert Ousley, Gordon Fox, Tom Nowicki, Zac Abbott, Gail Cronauer, Bill Anoatubby, Jeannie Barbour, Lona Barrick, Robert Cheadle, Chandler Schultz, Stacy Cunningham. Directed by Nathan Frankowski

 

The treatment of the native culture by the American government is not one of our finest and proudest achievements. We have put them in ghettos, marginalized them as a people, infected them with disease and alcoholism and relegated their culture to near-extinction. Some extraordinary Native Americans however have helped preserve that culture for all of us to marvel at and learn from today.

In Oklahoma, the Chickasaw nation has produced a film about one of their favorite daughters. Mary Frances Thompson (Williams) was born on their reservation, the daughter of Chickasaw shopkeeper (and tribal treasurer) T.B. Thompson (Birmingham) and his Caucasian wife Bertie (Brannagh). She was a precocious child who was in love with the natural world and with the stories of her people told to her by her father and grandparents. As she grew older, she developed a wanderlust and her natural intelligence compelled her to attend the Oklahoma College for Women (today known as the University for Science and Arts in Oklahoma) and be the first Native American to graduate from there.

Under the tutelage of Miss Davis (Pickett), a drama teacher who recognizes the light in the young Native, she develops “the bug” for the stage and emigrates to New York over the strong objections of her father (who knowing the racism of whites wants to keep his daughter close to home where he feels he can protect her better) to try to get a part on Broadway. However, although she shows some talent, it is when reciting the stories of her culture to adoring crowds (as she did during a school recital) when the girl most shines. Taking the stage name of Te Ata Thompson (Kilcher), based on a nickname given to her as a child from a Maori phrase meaning “bearer of the morning,” she begins to tour around the country and indeed the globe. One of her performances attracts the notice of Eleanor Roosevelt (Cronauer) who would become a lifelong friend and supporter. However, even more importantly, it would attract the attention of academic Clyde Fisher (Astin) who would at first be enchanted by the stories but quickly by the storyteller. The two would fall in love but in order to get married they would have to get the blessing of a man who would be a most difficult man to sell on the idea – Te Ata’s father.

The movie has a feel like a Disney movie to a certain extent and not necessarily in a good way. The home life feels a bit like Main Street, USA – all theme park-idealized and perhaps not very real. Te Ata early on witnesses an act of racially-motivated violence which was probably quite common and later in the film is upset by the racist depiction of Native Americans in a cartoon, something sadly common at the time. However, the treatment of the Natives is mostly observed through a law forbidding the practice of native customs and dances during a time when the American government felt these practices were heathen and anti-Christian. While it’s true that this symbolizes the prevailing official attitude of the government, we don’t get a sense of the petty indignities suffered by Natives at the time other than through the cartoon.

We do get a sense of the rich cultural heritage of the Chickasaw through the stories, taken from the actual stories the real Te Ata performed in her lifetime. The stories are marvelous and are at the heart of the movie. However, I must caution that when Kilcher (who is also a talented singer and musician) performs the songs of the Chickasaw people, they sound almost like pop songs right out of American Idol and I had to wonder if the real Te Ata would have approved of these interpretations.

Kilcher, who wowed audiences with her portrayal of Pocahontas in the 2005 film The New World (which made her the youngest person ever to be nominated for an acting Oscar, a record that stood until broken by Quvenzhané Wallis in 2012) reminds us that she is an accomplished actress with her performance here. There was some criticism that the storytelling performances depicted were over-the-top and highly mannered, but that was the acting style of the era. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find any footage (or even audio) of her actual performances but maybe with a diligent search you might be able to see them firsthand.

The cinematography is pretty nifty with some beautiful images of the Oklahoma outdoors as well as the small town early 20th century life near Emet, Oklahoma where the real Te Ata grew up (and later near Tishomingo where her family moved to when she was a young girl). The movie is perhaps the most respectful of native American culture since Dances with Wolves but hopefully will inspire more films about the culture and lore of Native Americans which has been sadly underrepresented on the screen. However, my big objection to the movie is that it feels sanitized, like a Native American gift shop of trinkets that capture the elements of the culture that maybe the non-native population wants to see without capturing the real essence of it. Only when Kilcher is reciting her stories do we really feel that culture as a living, breathing entity and in those moments Te Ata really soars. I just wish there were more of them.

REASONS TO GO: The stories Te Ata tells are mesmerizing and touching. Kilcher delivers a fine performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Everything feels a little Disney-fied, the songs too poppy and the atmosphere a little too Main Street USA. The film could have used a little more kick.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence and depictions of racism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 1939 (after the period depicted in the film), Te Ata performed for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England at Hyde Park in New York at the behest of President Roosevelt, an event that was depicted in Hyde Park on Hudson in which Te Ata was portrayed by Kumiko Konishi.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dances with Wolves
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Mummy (2017)