Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 14, 2023 11:28 pm 
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Lily Gladstone plays it as it lays

I wanted to say this is Chloe Zhao's followup to Nomadland - but it's the work of Morrisa Maltz, a director I'm unfamiliar with. It is however like Nomadland in being a docufiction ramble across the country. This time it's the effort of a forty-ish Native American woman called Tana (Lily Gladstone) to reconnect with her long-lost roots, in the form of retracing a path to find the trail of her late grandmother. It takes her from Minnesota to South Dakota, and then to Texas, in the dead of winter. In the cold, warm connections are made, starting with the beam of light that emanates from Gladstone's face. She is visiting her Oglala Lakota family, having fun, smiling, occasionally weeping, staying at off-the-grid type motels in her big, confident white Cadillac. Along the way real folks tell their stories in miniature. A hash house lady shows how she greets people and, at home, describes how she got each of her half dozen cats (attractively filmed, for, after all, cats are beauties). Tana attends an Indigenous peoples's wedding in an impressive pyramidal wood structure and we meet the real-life couple (Lainey and Devon) and some of the numerous young family members. In voiceover the wife tells their long Romeo and Juliet romance, meeting as teenagers and getting pregnant at fifteen. Jazzy, the kid, is big now and part of the wedding service.

Next Tana and Lainey meet Lainey's grandfather (Richard Ray Whitman), Tana's grandmother's brother, and he gives her words of wisdom and a little old suitcase that belonged to her grandmother that she left on the Rez when she went wandering. It's he who encourages Tana to follow pictures and seek out her grandmother's past, or the spirit of it. Whitman performs this scene like a pro, and looks distinguished.

Further along, a gay man tells the fairy tale of his eleven-year relationship with Cole, a much younger man with long blond hair: how he dreamed him when he was fifteen and twenty five years later in another town pumping gas, the man of his dreams, with the same hair and beard and name, came to get gas and he introduced himself and his desires with the magic words, "I love a man who knows what he wants."

There are more little true-life monologues: a man who walked away from a successful engineering career to run a motel with his wife; a dance hall owner in Dallas, who bought the place so that 90-year-old Flo, a local legend, would have a place to dance every night. No lie. Believe-It-Or-NOt. Maltz is using her documentary film experience to blend this material into her loosely-slung travel tale, like Chloe Zhao in Nomadland, but with less effort to make it all blend in.

Other incidents occur. Two strangers come onto Tana menacingly, and she's devastated when a cop stops her on the highway (we don't know how that ends).

Other elements of the film: a restrained score; cinematographer Andrew Hajek's velvety nights, snow, vast serrated low hillsides; an obligato of radio news talk, a crazy panorama of tuned-in meta-America that's a disturbing uber nether-world to the folksiness and everyday dangers that Tana encounters. Tana smokes cigarettes, and, surprisingly to us city folk, she connects with people that way. She meets a group of friendly people in an open-air bar, shares a cigarette, and hangs with them all night, drinking, dancing, and having fun.

Where does she get this time? What does she do in life - besides care for her grandma? How did Lily Gladstone fit in with these people so well? Part of the answer is the latter question this was a collaborative effort. The Roger review explains the film "was conceived and written by Gladstone, Maltz, editor Vanara Taing, and Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux," a family member who produced and appears in the film. Gladstone interacts with people playing either a version of themselves or themselves outright, but it's all been worked out.

The result is heartwarming and cute, and yet has an edge at times, making use of Native American authenticity to give its docufiction ploy some more unifying point than just wanderlust. It may not seem to be about very much - the homecoming and investigation of the grandparent don't go deeply into detail - but its little outright testimonials make it more upfront about its dependence on "truth" than Nomadland, and with Lily Gladstone's presence, warmth, and Indigenous identity, it acquires a tad more emotional resonance. This movie builds onto the striking impression Gladstone made in Kelly Reichardt's oddball Certain Women, which was crowned later this year by the haunting, powerful, ironic personality she projects as the wised-up Indigenous wife in Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon, making her a star, and the second most notable film actress this year after Sandra Hüller.

The Unknown Country 85 mins., debuted in SXSW, showing at ten other festivals. It came out in US theaters in July. Internet release Sept. 12, 2023. It premieres exclusively on MUBI Dec. 15, 2023. Metacritic rating: 82%.

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