That said, I've recently seen two films, "Older Than America" and "Rez Bomb," both of which demonstrate the promise and often frustrating limitations of Native cinema. Out of four stars, I'd give both films two and a half. They both held my attention during their running times, but I don't see how either of them would generate much interest from the multiplex mentality. If I were a major theatrical distributor, I'd take a pass. The future of these two projects is probably relegated to the film festival circuit and possibly a cable outlet like the Independent Film Channel but more likely an eventual modest DVD release. This is just another reason investors are so reluctant to fund Native films.
Looking at the films on their own merits, "Older Than America" is the more ambitious of the two efforts, wearing its sometimes preachy agenda on its sleeve of bringing to light past abuses in Indian boarding schools. Director/co-writer/actress Georgina Lightning assembles a recognizable cast, including Adam Beach, Wes Studi and Bradley Cooper (recently gaining career momentum from "The Hangover") and surrounds them with a tale of supernatural visions, family secrets, murder, small-town political and religious corruption, and sweat lodge healing ceremonies.
The story of the systematic abuse of Indian children in boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries is powerful enough material on its own, but in "Older Than America," it's almost as if the writers felt they had to make the history more palatable by surrounding it with every genre convention they could think of: Supernatural mystery at old abandoned boarding school, check. Romance between tribal police officer (Beach) and local teacher (Lightning), check. Introduction of out-of-town white guy (Cooper) for mainstream audience to identify with, check. Hissable villains in the forms of corrupt priest and mayor, check. Wise old Indian man who helps bridge the supernatural world with traditional ceremonies, check.
The overall result is too many characters, too many dangling plot threads and not enough of a "real world" sense of what the Indian boarding school experience means or should mean to American society as a whole. I applaud the effort of trying to reach out to a wide audience, but in trying so hard to do so much the filmmakers may have ironically marginalized the film even more.
Story issues aside, as a filmmaker, Georgina Lightning acquits herself quite well. She scores solid performances from her actors across the board, the tech credits (as Variety would say) are very professional for a low budget effort, and as a director of action and suspense, she stages her scenes effectively. However, when it comes to scenes of intimacy, this is where she falls a bit short. Her bedroom scenes with co-star Adam Beach are particularly awkward and squirm-inducing in their obvious lack of chemistry. This could be attributed to rumors of on-set friction between her and Beach, since she seems less self-conscious in scenes with the other actors, but Lightning might have been better off concentrating on directing and casting another actress like Tonatzin Carmelo (who, as you know, covered similar supernatural territory in "Imprint"), DeLanna Studi or Tamara Feldman in the lead role.
Speaking of Tamara Feldman, she is one of the pleasant discoveries of "Rez Bomb," the other Native-themed film I saw this month. The film was actually written and directed by a non-Native (Steven Lewis Simpson) and it's essentially a young-lovers-on-the-run film set near the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Feldman (her bio says she's part Cherokee) plays a young Lakota woman who falls for a ne'er do well white guy and gets swept up in his drama of treachery and violence in which they both find themselves pursued by a sadistic loan shark. The film on paper actually has more crossover potential than "Older Than America," but is ultimately undone in its execution by its ultra low-budget trappings. The performances range from painfully amateurish to passably competent and the tech credits range from sometimes serviceable to pretty much non-existent. Feldman sometimes has trouble elevating her performance above the cliched script, but she's really the only thing worth seeing in the film (she shines in scenes where there is no required dialogue), and one wonders if she'll become to the go-to actress when it comes to Native roles for women.
I've seen Tamara Feldman in some roles. E.g., Poppy Lifton in Gossip Girl. She seems a decent enough actress.
But I hope she doesn't become the go-to girl for too many Native roles. Unless the roles are only part Native, that is. People such as Delanna Studi, Tonantzin Carmelo, Misty Upham, and Tamara Podemski should be getting these roles, not a part Cherokee with starlet looks.
For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.