How can you know anything if you don’t know yourself? As if life on the margins of America is not already hard enough, try it without a clear understanding of who you are and where you fit in. Focussing on the Navajo community in which she grew up, Sydney Freeland’s debut feature centres on three individuals grappling with their own identities in an environment that threatens to overwhelm them all. If Drunktown’s Finest fails to entirely reconcile the authentic with the cinematic, it’s still a laudable effort that tries to give a voice to a community rarely seen in American cinema.
Freeland introduces her three leads in slick style. Snappy introductory scenes conclude with their names flashing up across the screen. There’s Sick Boy (Jeremiah Bitsui), trying to go straight to provide for his little sister and pregnant girlfriend but almost pathologically incapable of staying out of trouble. We meet him drunkenly slapping a cop who tries to move him on, a shortcut to an overnight holding cell. Then there’s Felixia (Carmen Moore), a young transvestite who earns pocket money prostituting herself in the local community. She craves acceptance, desperate to win a spot on a local calendar. Freeland rounds off with Nizhoni (Morning Star Wilson), adopted at the age of 7 by white parents, who wants to reconcile her past with her present. As their stories progress, Freeland begins to knit together her three separate searches for identity.
Optimism is in short supply in Freeland’s backyard. You either get out or you give up. It’s certainly true that everyone else has given up on them in some way. Nizhoni’s parents are horrified at the thought of her returning to the world that they feel they rescued her from. Equally, it’s easy to see where Sick Boy’s inability to drag himself clear of trouble comes from when he visits his messed up mother and her abusive boyfriend.
But there is optimism available. For all the hardships Felixia goes through, she comes from a remarkably accepting family. What Freeland does very effectively is show her characters how to grasp the hope that still lies out there. This is neither an unremittingly bleak portrait of an outcast life nor is it a falsely stirring tale of redemption. It’s a layered look at the reality of the community she grew up in.
Freeland still falls prey to the usual difficulties that come from splitting the narrative. Sick Boy’s arc is considerably more compelling, partly helped by Bitsui’s powerful performance. Felixia also has strong moments if somewhat more limited by Moore’s range. It’s Nizhoni that suffers the most, propped up by an unneeded comic duo on her road crew that can’t mask the inexperienced actor’s shortcomings.
This supposedly realistic look at a Navajo reservation comes unstuck on occasion. Chance encounters begin to multiply as the three stories chug towards their resolution, ending in an oddly idealised vision that contrasts unfavourably with the realism she’s striving for elsewhere. What Freeland does do is demonstrate that the Navajo are not just deputy sheriffs or casino operators, contrary to their usual onscreen roles. They all have their problems, but Drunktown’s Finest proves that they don’t have to be slaves to them.