December 28, 2007

Review of Four Sheets to the Wind

I finally saw this year's much-talked-about Native film. I must say it was good.

The following reviews express my feelings about Four Sheets to the Wind:

Four Sheets to the WindTell me if you've heard this one before: A man in his mid-twenties is faced with the death of a relative and goes to another environment to find out who he truly is. What? You've heard that story before? “Garden State”? Well, yes, but it also succinctly sums up my description of the film “Four Sheets to the Wind.” Or what I like to call, "The Native American 'Garden State'."

Cufe Smallhill (Cody Lightning) discovers his father has ingested a large amount of sleeping pills and is dead. Instead of a regular burial, Cufe gives his father a Seminole send-off by submerging his body in the lake that meant so much to him. Cufe’s sister Miri (Tamara Podemski) invites him to come visit her in Tulsa. Feeling like his life isn’t going anywhere in Oklahoma, Cufe jumps on a bus to go visit his sister. There he meets a free spirit named Francie who shows Cufe that there is a much bigger world than the one he inhabits in Oklahoma.

The film is written and directed by Sterlin Harjo and is the first film I have seen with a real focus on modern day Native Americans. This may be Harjo’s first feature film but he is more than up to the task, delivering a film with some wonderfully oddball comedy while also being a very heart-felt statement about expanding on the person you are and finding your true voice.

Podemski's Miri is especially fun to watch, mostly due to all her foolish choices, providing classic comic relief. The girl who plays Francie is not exactly the best actress but you can only expect so much from an indie cast.

The film was definitely a fun ride but the classic three-act structure of the film was in pieces, with no real turning points. Cufe and Miri’s Dad does die at the beginning, setting things in motion, but there are no bad feelings, no personal growth, no need to reconcile with the death beyond normal grieving. However, the film is a well-acted and decent distraction for its hour and a half running time.
Four Sheets to the WindLike its shy hero, "Four Sheets to the Wind" is so low-key it risks making little impression--until you realize it (and he) has stealthily won viewer sympathy and affection. Cody Lightning ("Smoke Signals") plays an Oklahoma Native American making his first, tentative steps out of the family nest after a parent's demise. Very modest, no-frills first feature for writer-helmer Sterlin Harjo might not lure theatrical buyers, but should make headway toward ancillary exposure via fest-circuit popularity.

Cufe Smallhill (Lightning) is a young Seminole-Creek doing nothing in particular, like most underemployed folks in his rural community, while living with his mother (Jerri Arredondo). At the pic's start, he discovers diabetes-plagued dad in his easy chair, a pill-overdose suicide. Taciturn as the old man was, Cufe is still torn up by the loss. Needing a change, he visits his older sister (Tamara Podemski, who copped a Sundance jury prize for thesping) in Tulsa. She's partying too hard and scraping by, but neighbor Francie (Laura Bailey) provides Cufe a welcome romantic interest and a door to the wider world. There's no flamboyance of incident here, but the gently insightful script, perfs and direction (plus Jeff Johnson's attractive score) prove ingratiating.
On the positive side

I haven't been to Oklahoma, but the film seems to capture rural life in Seminole territory well. There's no glorification or beautification of the landscape here. Everything seems mundane, prosaic--as it usually is in reality.

This true-to-life quality is helped by the true-to-life cinematography. Sterlin Harjo has filmed people in natural (sometimes dim) light, unshaved and sans makeup, in scruffy clothes, with a cigarette or a drink in hand. Four Sheets almost looks like a reality show at times. It has none of the bright artificiality of many Hollywood movies.

Four Sheets is less stagy or contrived than the similarly situated The Doe Boy. In the latter, the young man has to shoot a deer or forever be branded a loser. Cufe faces no such manipulative drama. He's an average guy faced with average choices like the rest of us.

This movie doesn't wear its Native identity on its sleeve. There's no talk of adhering to the old ways or walking between two worlds. No rez slang in the air or Native art on the walls. Being Seminole is a subtle thing: a voice in a "foreign" language, a song at a funeral, brown faces in the background.

Cufe doesn't face discrimination, oppression, or abuse. The most he has to deal with is a punch in a bar when he flirts with a white girl and vaguely inappropriate comments from white acquaintances. No, his problem is mostly internal and self-generated: what is he going to do with his life? Continue along the same path, or try something else?

I don't usually don't rave about acting, but the three main actors all did a fine job. As the Hollywood Reporter put it:The performances are richly subdued. Lightning's portrayal of Cufe is superb, capturing the young man's reserved strength--something he never knew he had. Podemski's performance as his hard-drinking sister shows the young woman's fears and loneliness.On the negative side

This is one of those slacker-style coming-of-age stories where (almost) nothing happens. Once Cufe heads for Tulsa, there's almost no plot to speak of. Until the end, Four Sheets seems as aimless as Cufe and Miri as they drift through life without goals or plans.

Cufe and Miri are well-acted enough that you want to know what will happen to them. But you frequently wonder if this movie is going to be about anything. The point of moviegoing isn't to see characters whose lives are less interesting than yours is. Movies are supposed to be larger than life, not smaller.

As with most personal independent films, the critics' rhapsodies are overblown. "[T]the panoramic cinematography makes the most of those wide open Oklahoma skies" ( No, the cinematography is closer to anti-panoramic, especially compared to a movie like Imprint. "The Tulsa chapters prove inspirational as well eye-opening" (Emanuel Levy)? No, they confirm what you already suspect about Cufe and Miri. "[Cufe makes] this leap of life" (Hollywood Reporter)? No, he takes the first tiny baby steps. "Francie opens Cufe up in ways he never expected, but before he can move on with her, he has to let go of everything he believes to be true about himself" ( No, Cufe doesn't do anything more than begin to accept his father's loss. "Enchanting," "captivating," and "decidedly idiosyncratic" (Hollywood Reporter)? No, it's neither enchanting nor captivating, in my opinion, and it's less idiosyncratic than most movies.

What saves Four Sheets from being your run-of-the-mill Garden State knockoff is the ending. The coda featuring Cufe ties together the movie's scattered threads and gives them some emotional weight. I won't spoil it by saying too much, but one theme that emerges is "You're never far from home"--the opposite of the standard "You can't go home again." That theme cuts across every culture, but it's especially appropriate for a Native movie.

All in all, this is one Native movie you should definitely see--if only to decide whether you agree with my comments. Rob's rating:  8.5 of 10.

P.S.'s Zack Haddad needs to get out more if he's never seen a movie about modern-day Native people. Try Thunderheart, Pow Wow Highway, Smoke Signals, Skins, Edge of America, Christmas in the Clouds, or Imprint, Zack.

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