Sydney Freeland‘s debut feature Drunktown’s Finest explores notions of identity and connections to home, which are the two most common themes in Indigenous cinema. The film’s three main characters struggle with their connection to their Navajo homeland in a way that is fresh and timely in its approach. The film’s title alone reclaims the dehumanized view of Indians that is portrayed in popular media.
Three intertwining stories comprise Drunktown’s Finest, and all center around characters who, one way or another, try desperately to leave or come to terms with the Navajo reservation. The film opens with a beautiful time-lapsed shot of Dry Lake, NM, as one of the film’s main characters, Nizhoni (Morningstar Angeline), laments, “They say this land isn’t a place to live, but a place to leave.” Nizhoni was adopted by a white couple years earlier and returns as a young woman to complete community service on the reservation before heading off to college in Michigan. Amid the film’s identity theme, Nizhoni struggles as a Christian to understand life on the Navajo reservation while secretly searching for her birth parents.
Luther “Sick Boy” Maryboy (Jeremiah Bitsui) gets arrested for assaulting a police officer one drunken night, just days before he is to leave his pregnant girlfriend behind on the reservation to join the army. After one stroke of good luck, in which an army official gets him off the hook for the assault charge, his life spirals downward over the next few days. Luther’s life represents desperation, and lack of opportunity on the reservation but his struggle to leave is reconciled at the end of the film. The ending of the film stresses the importance of staying close to one’s family, no matter how much you hate the place you come from.
Drunktown‘s third main character, Felixia (Carmen Moore), is a trans Navajo girl who has aspirations of becoming a model. She turns tricks for money so she can leave the reservation, and, similar to Sick Boy and Nizhoni, believes leaving home will lead to better opportunities. Moore grows naturally into her role as Felixia and gives the film’s best performance. Felixia’s status as a trans woman is rarely stressed in the film. Unlike Nizhoni, Felixia struggles less with her identity as a Navajo, but her imperative to leave home is just as deeply felt.
Felixia is the first trans/gay character I’ve seen in a smalltown-set film whose sexual identity is rarely, if ever, contested. One scene where she is humiliated by a fellow entrant at a modeling audition is more about her antagonist’s opportunism than it is about humiliating Felixia because of her sexuality. Near the film’s end, Felixia’s grandfather (Native Cinema staple Richard Ray Whitman) tells her a story about the “Third Gender,” which underlines the importance of the interconnectedness of family and demonstrates that Felixia’s sexuality is never questioned and always accepted. As Felixia prepares to leave the reservation at the end of the film, her grandfather ends his story by telling her, “No matter where you go, you will always have a home here.”
The film ends with one minor character completing Kinaalda, which represents a Navajo girl’s entry into womanhood. The ceremony marks the young girl’s journey into adulthood, and also the journey into maturity taken by the three main characters. The final image of Drunktown’s Finest touchingly visualizes this journey.
Drunktown’s Finest appropriates a familiar formula, that of alienated young people who yearn to leave behind the limited opportunities presented to them in their small towns. Dome of Heaven (2011), another relatively recent Indian-themed film directed by author Diane Glancey, also explored the same kind of story. Dome of Heaven told the story of a rural Oklahoma Native girl who struggled to leave behind her drab small town so she could go to college. Where Dome of Heaven and Drunktown’s Finest differ are in the ways Indian characters and their surroundings are depicted. Glancey’s staid film was just as drab and dull as most small towns in places like Oklahoma, and her film seemed peculiarly drained of life and spontaneity. On the other hand, within the same kind of story, Freeland possesses a keen eye for the rhythms of her film’s setting, and of the people she depicts. The rocky desert landscape, the tawdry neon glow of liquor store signs, tricked-out Southwestern cars driven by young criminals, the eerie sight of a dead horse on the side of a dark highway, all contribute to a setting that pulsates with the chaos of real life.
Freeland, like some of the best Indigenous filmmakers currently working, has a strong sense of time and place. And like many Indigenous films made in North America, Drunktown’s Finest talks back to many of the negative portrayals of Indians in other media by naming itself after a 20/20 TV special with the insulting title ‘Drunk Town, USA,’ which was about alcoholism on the Navajo reservation. The reference to the 20/20 special shows that Freeland has the presence of mind as a filmmaker to re-appropriate images of Native Americans. She reshapes depictions of Indigenous people who, in the hands of non-Indians (Glancey included) are nothing more than the persistent stereotypes that have been shown in other films with Indian characters.
Freeland’s film shows that there is nowhere else to go but home.