Waist-high in blue-green pond water, a young man smokes a cigarette as tiny waves ripple to the edges of the screen. My memory of this postcard-perfect image in Sterlin Harjo‘s feature debut, “Four Sheets to the Wind,” hasn’t dissipated over time, and that may be because this coming-of-age drama builds to a quiet intensity not unlike that initial ripple. Early on, however, one fears a film of corny escapades and over-the-top sit-combinations: We see in the short sequence leading to this pond image that the man has, in fact, found his father dead, carried his flaccid, heavy body down to the water, and put him to rest deep in the pond, per the man’s wishes. The mother is not happy about the makeshift burial. The body is, of course, missing. The community wants to mourn. A white guy a little too infatuated with Native culture builds a campy casket. It seems all but certain that hi-jinks will ensue.
Luckily for us, the body is buried and remains so in a casket we never have to lay eyes on again. What screenwriter and director Harjo is actually up to with the set-up is simple scene-setting and character-sketching for an Oklahoma family and a community in transition. They are rural American Indians adjusting to pressures placed upon them by a Native-clueless world, pressures Harjo often exploits to wonderful comedic effect.
With a project that bubbled up from Sundance Institute‘s labs, Harjo strikes a balance between pathos and humor as the story settles into one of a brother and sister finding their way between the region’s rural and urban divides. Small ironies are, of course, interesting to Harjo as he moves his protagonist Cufe Smallhill (Cody Lightning) from indignities of the outback (where he gets a black eye when caught accepting the flirtations of a drunk, and not exactly conventionally attractive, white-lady at a bar) to a moment of city bliss (in which a younger, prettier, smarter woman at a bar — one who does not have a cowboyfriend at the pool table — approaches him with sincere interest). But the potential for tragedy is the focus: Cufe’s sister, a few bad relationships and worse jobs ahead of him in her urban outpost, is not doing quite as well.
Their father, a reportedly quiet man, now absent from the scene, exercises a thoughtful presence over the two in the film as he occasionally narrates, parable-style, in his native language (subtitled). Harjo guides characters between scenes and sequences with an innovative indie-folk soundtrack whose riffs can jump from the inside of one man’s pickup truck to cortex of another man’s brain. While the film’s finely distilled anecdotes – one involving the Weather Channel and falsified rain dance – point to the sometimes farcical nature of assimilation, “Four Sheets to the Wind” is an identity film with a lower-case “i.” It seeks, and sometimes finds, universal emotional appeal within a story that’s rich in regionalism. Moments of cinematography that capture lush green and decaying brick, the subtleties of a not unattractive Oklahoma countryside against a not necessarily overwhelming Oklahoma cityscape, are what gives “Four Sheets” its more fascinating textures.
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