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Drunktown’s Finest- writer/ director Sydney Freeland, Sundance London

The question ‘Should film critics care about cinematic technique?’ was asked by the Guardian’s Tom Shone not so long ago, as a row emerged on both sides of the Atlantic as to the proper language, form and technique critics should employ when writing their reviews. Do critics need to know about the nuts and bolts of filmmaking? Critic-Wire asked. Who writes about lighting, camera movement, editing etc, another implored, elements  “as crucial to the effect of a movie as brushstrokes and pigment are to a painting”?
Not wishing to enter the debate here, it is of course true that these elements should be touched upon. But it’s also true that some films [I am thinking of Under the Skin, dir Jonathan Glazer] whilst giving a critic much to write about in terms of style and mise en scene, might, however, at the same time lack content or universal values, whilst conversely, other films, whilst perhaps less interested in cinematic elements, still have a lot to say. Such can be said about Drunktown’s Finest, writer/ director Sydney Freeland’s debut, centring around three young Native Americans raised in a Mexican Navajo community. The script’s concerned with the themes you would expect of such a genre- drunkenness [Freeland’s main inspiration came from a news story characterising her hometown Gallup, New Mexico, as Drunktown USA] lack of employment, poverty and isolation. Sick Boy [ Jermeiah Bitsui] is challenged with lasting the weekend free of trouble until he gets the ‘privilege’ of joining the army, his only way out of Navaho, Nizhoni [Morningstar Angeline], adopted by White Americans and unable to sleep and fixated by her dreams, begins the long search for her biological family on the ‘feared’ reservation and Felixia [Carmen Moore] a promiscuous transsexual [whom, refreshingly, her Grandfather Medicine Man acceptingly refers to as a Nadleeh, the third gender in Native American tribal law ] who struggles to find her identity and a sense of belonging.
It is telling that this is Freeland’s first feature- at times the camera work smacks of a television news magazine [although this style goes some way towards not sentimentalising her story and giving a sense of realness to the environment and her characters] and there is no effort made to explore that internal hinterland that cinema does so well using sound and/ or editing. In the beginning the dialogue suffers for clumsiness, something that even Jermeiah Bitsui can’t disguise. But it’s the acting and structural thematical build up which makes this film compelling, a build up which has a satisfying climax in the film’s denouement and draws on the sound bites of wisdom characters express throughout the narrative. It’s ending is also at the beginning, as we realise at the film’s climax we are cleverly led back to think of the film’s opening lines.

There might not be much to exalt over in terms of cinematic style, but Drunktown’s Finest packs a punch that can sometimes be heartfelt too- watch out for the horror of the scene with the little boy half way through, a typical example of all the violent troubles and abuse a Native American may still face today. What’s crucial about Freeland’s film though, is that it shows a community in conflict with itself, questioning how it lives and finding solutions. It is less about leaving for Dry Lake, and more  about finding a way to stay.

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