In Sterlin Harjo's debut feature, Four Sheets To The Wind, detailing the emotional and interior journey of a young, somewhat confused Native coming to terms with the death of his father, the young film-maker has carved out a limited though intoxicating piece of American regional film-making.
In examining issues such as representation and honor, the film invokes the classic independent titles such as Powwow Highway or Skins. The critical difference is here, the director privileges the personal over the political, concerned more with the specter of freedom than cultural confusion in telling a story about a young man who must seize control of his life rather than succumb to stasis and inertia that essentially destroyed his father.
Economically made, told with precision, Four Sheets To The Wind deserves a theatrical engagement. The strongest markets are likely the American Southwest and Canada with their large, diverse and sophisticated Native populations. The specialised DVD market and home ancillary markets are the critical means to get the movie out. Given the movie's subject matter, it has very limited, if nonexistent, commercial potential internationally. It screened in dramatic competition at Sundance.
The movie's narrated, in subtitled Muscogee, from beyond the grave by Frankie (Whitman); Cufe Smallhill (Lightning), his spectacularly named son discovered the body. The father's death is just cause for the son to uproot himself from the family's rural Oklahoma home and escape to the city, Tulsa, where his sister, Miri (Podemski), is living and working.
Trapped between his sense of guilt and obligation to his mother (Arredondo), unmoored by the shifting codes of responsibility and confusion, Cufe finally summons the courage to escape the dreary rural stretch of him home and visit his sister Miri in nearby Tulsa. His decision proves instantly liberating, and his careful, unmotivated world is turned upside down after he gains the interest of Miri's appealing, available neighbour Francie (Bailey).
Suddenly the lines between the past and present are obliterated. If anything the roles of the siblings now intersect, and the two switch roles. Cufe is suddenly decisive and free, Miri is trapped and lonely, subjecting herself to unsatisfying sexual experiences, stealing from her job and falling dangerously behind in her rent.
Exploring how the past inhabits and continually shapes the present, Harjo draws on the contrasts of the rural landscapes and city streets to make the visual distinction. In the most beautiful moment, a tender, pensive Miri stands in a juke joint, her beautiful skin lit by the phosphorescent light of the jukebox. The movie is about confronting fear and tackling it head on. It has a self-critical edge, moving the discussion away from the typical preoccupation with assimilation to become more about the personal bid for freedom and responsibility.
If there's a weakness to his script, it sometimes falters as storytelling and structure, the information between the margins, for instance Miri's precipitous decline, occurs so quickly, the intertwined stories feel disconnected or out of place. Characters are introduced, such as Jon Proudstar's Jim, and simply disappear.
Fortunately, he has excellent actors to compensate for his inexperience. Lighting is funny, relaxed and direct in his movements, a sharply observed anti-hero. Well played by Podemski, the part of Miri takes on a darker filigree, and she adopts quickly and decisively the character's abrupt, constantly shifting emotional movements. Frederick Schroeder's camera work utilizes the Tulsa locations, and captures contrasts and nuances of the Oklahoma light and landscape.
All the same Harjo is a natural storyteller who uses the camera judiciously. The movie runs just 85 minutes, and every moment feels lean and properly balanced. It has the passion of the first feature well told.
Indion Entertainment Group
Dirt Road Productions
c/o Creative Artists Agency
Carla Marie Rugg
David Michael Maurer
Richard Ray Whitman