Sundance 2014: Drunktown's Finest review

In 1990, Sydney Freeland's home of Gallup, New Mexico was dubbed Drunktown, USA by a report on ABC's 20/20 news programme. Decades later, Freeland has reclaimed the undesirable moniker for the name of her feature debut set in her hometown and the adjoining reservation. Drunktown's Finest (2014) has been a seven-year labour of love for the filmmaker, receiving support from Sundance's development labs since all the way back in 2009. A defiance of the dismissive description, this is Freeland's own take on Gallup via a trio of its residents. Although the end result is not completely successful, it's a thoughtful cinematic light being shone on otherwise neglected Native American lives.

Heading for a convergence at a traditional right of passage ceremony, the lives of the three protagonists remain largely separate despite all living in the same place. Luther 'SickBoy' Maryboy (Jeremiah Bitsui) is the kind of character for which the town received its nickname. After an arrest for drunk and disorderly conduct, he is warned to keep his nose clean until his departure for basic training and a better life in the military. On the other side of town, Nizhoni (Morning Star Wilson) is the adopted daughter of two white doctors, who is keen to meet her biological family before she heads off to college in Michigan. Felixia (Carmen Moore) is a transsexual woman who lives on the reservation with her entirely non-judgemental grandparents and aspires to appear on a swimsuit calendar featuring Navajo women.

These three strands orbit one another chronicling different struggles felt by young Native Americans in modern USA. SickBoy embodies the kind of alcoholism that resulted in the reputation and seems to be in a constant battle to retain self-control despite a pregnant girlfriend and a young sister being dependent on him. Bitsui is the most experienced of the cast and is the most capable, but he is not helped by a script that continually feels contrived and inauthentic. Both Moore and Wilson are newcomers to the big-screen and although their stories travel slightly less clich├ęd paths, they are regrettably problematic due to the stilted performances. Everything from punch-ups and armed robbery to drinking and debauchery are crammed into the runtime, and with the unwelcome addition of a weak script, engagement in the characters is extremely limited throughout.

Strangely, despite all of the numerous issues, Freeland's desire to offer hope to young inhabitants of towns like Gallup does manage to shine through. A late scene that sees all three of the characters together at the home of Felixia's family - and receiving suitably wizened words from her grandfather (Richard Ray Whitman) - is unquestionably affecting and surprisingly unsentimental. It's a conclusion, by contrast, that sees the sun rising over the mountain after lives lived in the dark. It's not quite enough to make-up for the preceding problems of Freeland's Drunktown's Finest, but is the highlight of this lo-fi Navajo fable.

Sundance London 2014 takes place at the O2 Arena from 25-27 April. For more of our coverage, follow this link.

Ben Nicholson


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