First Feature by writer/director Sydney Freeland takes a sincere look at the problems of young people on a Navajo Reservation in Arizona. Here are two reviews–from Jan and from Brigid–across the generations.
Review of Drunktown’s Finest by Managing Editor Jan Lisa Huttner
Writer/Director Sydney Freeland promises more than actually delivered in her first feature-length film, following three people and their attachment to an Indian Reservation in Gallup, New Mexico.
The story takes place on the weekend before expectant father “Luther Maryboy” (Jeremiah Bitsui)–also known as “SickBoy”–is scheduled to report for military service. His apprehension about fatherhood and the military builds to the surface and causes him to react in a less-than-ideal way, turning a grocery store trip into an all-night party.
The second character we meet is wannabe model “Felixia” (Carmen Moore), a young transsexual who is determined to be treated as a woman, despite the fact that she has yet to undergo a sex-change operation. (This is becomes a plot point precisely because her dates have to deal with the physical reality of Felixia’s actual body.) Her main goal, outside of chatting men online as “Sexy Tranny Felixia,” is to be accepted for annual The Beauties of the Navajo Reservation calendar.
The third character is “Nizhoni Smiles” (MorningStar Angeline), a young high school graduate searching for her birth parents. Raised by a white mother and father–both of whom are physicians–Nizhoni makes it her mission to break free from her sheltered life and contact her relatives on the reservation.
Over the course of this one life-changing weekend, these three characters face difficulties and painful self-awareness as they prepare for significant events in their lives. The film reveals the complexities of Native American life and the preponderance of alcohol and bad judgments. Although the film centers on these three characters, Freeland also shows us some of their tribe’s more traditional roles. She sprinkles in scenes with wise grandparents throughout the film, and these elders influence the younger characters, as Luther’s youngest sister prepares for her coming-of-age ceremony. By the end of Drunktown’s Finest, lives have intersect with one other and all the characters have become more grounded in the commonality they share.
Unfortunately, the telling of this somewhat predictable but very well-intentioned story depends on young actors who are a but too inexperienced to carry their weight, and all too often they fall flat in melodrama. So while the direction is promising and the result is certainly watchable, I can’t recommend Drunktown’s Finest with my whole heart.
We certainly need more stories about the Native American experience and Sydney Freeland’s semi-autobiographical point of view is most welcome. Drunktown’s Finest is clearly a Sundance production, and with Robert Redford (who serves as Executive Producer) behind her, I hope Drunktown’s Finest will be the first step in Freeland’s unfolding career. Hopefully as she becomes more experienced, Freeland will find actors–and nurture actors–who can carry forth her intentions. (JLH: 3/5)
Review © Jan Lisa Huttner (2/20/15)
Sydney Freeland tells three intertwining stories about life in relation to a New Mexico Indian Reservation (aka “Drunk Town, U.S.A.”). The film follows father-to-be “Luther Maryboy” — or “Sick Boy” — (Jeremiah Bitsui), an Anglo-adoptee searching for her birth parents “Nizhoni” (MorningStar Angeline), and a transsexual woman “Felixia” (Carmen Moore). Freeland touches on conventional issues, from Sick Boy joining the army and Nizhoni yearning to go to college, to taboo situations like Felixia posing for a bathing suit calendar.
As Sick Boy attends parties to avoid his pregnant wife, the film cuts to Nizhoni as she discovers the fate of her birth parents. Meanwhile, Felixia keeps her income afloat by her online alter-ego “Sexy_Tranny_FeliXXXia,” chatting up men who will pay her big money. Despite their flaws, each character feels remarkably human. In one of the film’s heart wrenching scenes, Felixia’s transgender identity is exposed to a hoard of staring, snickering girls. The audience can feel Felixia’s pain and humiliation, making you overlook some of the film’s clunky dialogue and dull moments.
But with some of the film’s lulls come heartfelt moments in a genre too familiar withstereotypes. The most interesting character is Moore’s Felix/Felixia as she comes to terms with the harsh realities of her transgender lifestyle – a subject more mainstream than ever with the Netflix series Orange is the New Black and the Amazon’s original series Transparent. Her journey throughout the film is touching, most likely reflecting aspects of Sydney Freeland’s own transgender transition.
Overall, Freeland uses hot-button scenarios of drug use, violence, and social media to depict each character’s lives and debunk the preconceived notions about her hometown of Gallup, New Mexico. She represents the traditional culture while, at the same time, incorporating the young and the new way of life for these Native Americans. Despite the film’s setting, the coming-of-age stories and universal themes are relatable to any viewer: the panic of becoming a new parent, the guilt of finding birth parents, or the shame and insecurities of being yourself. Although there could have been much improvement in the dialogue, acting, and action in general, Drunktown’s Finest sincerely depicts three characters and the common thread they share – figuring out their true identity.
Review © Brigid K. Presecky (2/23/15)
Top Photo: “Max Maryboy” (Magdalena Begay) is dressed for her coming-of-age ceremony.
Middle Photo: “Luther Maryboy” (Jeremiah Bitsui) — aka “SickBoy”
Bottom Photo: “SickBoy” — meets up with “Felixia” (Carmen Moore) in a local bar.
“Nizhoni Smiles” (Morning Star Wilson) has conversations with her mother, and later meets her grandmother (the matriarch who is also the grandmother of Felixia and Max).