Over the last weekend I was lucky enough to attend the Sundance London festival. Sundance is all about listening to the stories that may not be heard. Sydney Freeland’s directorial debut is one of these stories, and that just makes it all the more beautiful. Following the lives of three Native Americans in the fictional town of Drylake, and the neighbouring Navajo reservation, Drunktown’s Finest is a fresh new face on the cinema scene.
While Drunktown’s Finest deals most specifically with the modern Native American culture it also contains three deeply personal stories that are universal. The struggle for balance, be it between past and future, between who you are and how you are seen or even just between instincts and reasoning. The three lead performances documenting these struggles are all fantastic. However, Jeremiah Bitsui (SickBoy) seems let down by a slightly weaker character arc. SickBoy’s character is almost entirely objectionable and lacks adequate change or redemption, getting by through the kindness and forgiveness of others. He’s a little further removed from the heart of the film and ironically it seems that the film is balanced a bit too far in his direction.
That being said, newcomer Morning Star Wilson lights up the screen as adopted Christian Nizhoni. Her demeanour is perfectly placed in the realm of the teenage paradox, a proudly independent force still desperately in need of community and acceptance. Her performance is charming and raw in a demanding role. Our third protagonist, Felixia, a transgender woman trying to make it as a model is played by Carmen Moore, herself a transgender model and a Navajo woman. Her performance never misses a beat here and she has stated that many of the situations shown in the film reflect the reactions she experiences every day in regards to her identity. It’s a surprising and interesting voice to find on screen and the surrounding LGBT issues are handled with sensitivity and respect. Freeland avoids politicising the film on this issue, instead focusing on the importance of self-acceptance for everybody through the lens of someone who is struggling for their own reasons.
Ultimately that is the magic in Drunktown’s Finest. Freeland has touched upon and opened up a dialogue on topics ranging from religious diversity, LGBT acceptance and the struggle of Native Americans in today’s society without creating something that feels like promotion or propaganda. Drunktown’s Finest is uplifting and enjoyable and life-affirming, quite apart from being beautifully shot in some spectacular landscapes. It gives us a window not only into the three protagonists, but into their culture, which is itself struggling for unity and acceptance in the modern United States while holding on to a rich cultural heritage.
- Entertainment: 3/5
- Artistic: 4/5
- Intellectual: 5/5