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Not all Indigenous cinema needs to be serious

Santa Fe-born Morningstar Angeline Freeland stars in “The Incredible 25th Year of Mitzi Bearclaw.”

“The Incredible 25th Year of Mitzi Bearclaw” just so happens to be one of the stories we’re missing in cinema: It’s about a young Indigenous woman who, at 25, doesn’t always make the right choices. There are plenty of Indigenous stories and films that take on a host of serious subjects – poverty, alcoholism, land and water rights, boarding school trauma. But Mitzi is simply a coming-of-age story – and a fun watch.

This is a, dare I say it, contemporary movie, and that’s a term I don’t like using. Tommy Orange’s novel, “There There,” is often called “contemporary,” a word that non-Indigenous folks usually take to mean a serious look at Indian people living in the 21st century, sans powwow regalia, maybe living in poverty – contemporary in their terms. But Indians have been contemporary for a long time and we’re not always in such disrepair.

Mitzi Bearclaw returns home to her ailing mother. Director Shelley Niro gets that life is full of such experiences, but stays committed to a comedic tone throughout the film.

I’d like to redefine “contemporary” on our terms. Contemporary doesn’t mean that we still “exist” outside of old, outdated Western notions of Indigenous culture. It means exploring overlooked characters in Indigenous stories. Mitzi Bearclaw is contemporary because the lead is a multidimensional young Indigenous woman who isn’t going through a horrible traumatic experience. This is not to say Indigenous movies on serious subjects aren’t important, of course – but it is nice, once in a while, to see a story that isn’t so laden with postcolonial trauma. And there are a multitude of truly contemporary Indigenous stories like this that have yet to be touched upon.

Upon receiving a letter about her ailing mother, Mitzi is called home from her creative life in downtown Toronto, where she designs funky hats and her boyfriend is a photographer. Family obligations throw her back into small-community life on a fictitious coastal reserve in Southwestern Canada. There, she faces old enemies and unresolved relationships, including a mother who was never supportive and an old rivalry with a childhood enemy. Mitzi left all this small-town drama behind when she moved to Toronto, but these are the things she must confront in order to grow as an adult.

The movie gives us a peek at a year in the life, month by month, of a young Indigenous woman trying to figure out her next steps. Near the beginning of the movie, Mitzi laments in a fit of narcissism, “Why does everything happen to me?” Clearly, she will have to figure out that it’s not all about her in order for this story to work. The movie is edited to move from one chapter to the next at a steady pace; scenes don’t linger or overstay their welcome. There’s a nice mixture of different styles of upbeat music in the score. I’ll even forgive that quick flourish of flute music.

Mitzi is played by Santa Fe-born Morningstar Angeline Freeland, who was a lead in “Drunktown’s Finest,” a movie by Navajo director Sydney Freeland, her elder sister. Morningstar Freeland is effervescent and charming here. Mitzi is different from many of her past roles: In “Drunktown’s Finest,” she played Nizhoni, a girl in search of her birth parents. In Lakota/Navajo filmmaker Razelle Benally’s short film “Raven,” she played a young mother mourning her lost child. Her role in Vincent D’Onofrio’s “The Kid” is listed as simply “Young Whore.” Suffice it to say that Freeland rarely gets to cut loose and play roles like Mitzi. She sets the tone at the beginning: Right before Mitzi and her boyfriend are about to feed a group of hungry people in a park, she chuckles and teases him, “Look at you, all serious.” It’s refreshing to hear, because we know Mitzi’s sass is going to keep us on our toes.

As entertaining as the movie is, there’s a lot of sickness in it. Mitzi’s diabetic mother hints at her own disease by saying, “Sugar gets everyone.” Mitzi’s cousin, Charlie B., gets progressively worse from an undisclosed illness throughout the movie. Cayuga actor Gary Farmer, a Santa Fe resident, shows up, but then we attend his character’s funeral later on in the movie. He, too, must have been sick. Director Shelley Niro gets that life is full of such experiences, but stays committed to a comedic tone. She deals with the sad events, but keeps the movie moving forward.

While not life-changing, “The Incredible 25th Year of Mitzi Bearclaw” is an enjoyable cinematic experience. There’s not a moment that moves too slowly, which is a good sign: It means the film is engaging. In a perfect world, there would be more movies like this, designed for the overlooked demographic of mid-20s Indigenous young creatives. It’s a story about growth, feelings and maturation, all the things that young Indigenous people are doing when they aren’t protesting or rapping or singing or praying or whatever social media tells you that young Indigenous people do. It’s a simple movie about the simple things we all go through, the trials and tribulations of finding love and your place in this world, and that’s all right.

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee Creek writer and director (and an occasional actor) based in Albuquerque. This article was first published in High Country News (hcn.org) on Dec. 23.

 

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