Movie Review - Drunktown's Finest

Jeremiah Bitsui (left) in 'Drunktown's Finest'
The original or the early tentative title of this movie was Dry Lake after the area in New Mexico near where the story is set. Writer-director Sydney Freeland changed the title to what it currently is, probably in reference to the huge alcoholism problem within the Native American community.

During an address to the New Mexico Senate's Health and Human Services Committe in 2012, Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim said that American Indians and Alaska Natives die from alcoholism at a rate vastly higher than other Americans. In a 2013 article by Greg Yee in New Mexico's Daily Times, crime on the Navajo Reservation is often exacerbated by alcohol abuse. Freeland shot this film in her hometown of Gallup, NM, which also has an inordinately high violent crime rate, higher than any other city in the state and higher than the national average.

Jeremiah Bitsui stars as Sick Boy, a young man of Navajo heritage who is first seen stumbling drunk around his New Mexico town. He's picked up for public intoxication and public urination, and he ends up assaulting the arresting police officer. Later, Sick Boy tells someone that growing up in this area being drunk or being a drunk was something he saw as inevitable and very culturally ingrained. He makes this proclamation following a party scene where a bunch of young people are doing a lot of drinking.

This is not unusual. Most of the people at the party look college-age and it's seemingly no different than any fraternity party on school campuses all over the country. Other than some opening shots, Freeland doesn't really delve into the alcoholism issue that much. Aside from some lip-service between Sick Boy and some friends of his who plot a robbery and talk about which guns to use, Freeland also doesn't delve into the violent crime problem either.

What Freeland does delve into is homophobia within the Navajo community, specifically bigotry against transgendered or transsexual people. Carmen Moore co-stars as Felixia, a transgendered woman. She was born a male, but she has a Facebook page where she announces her status and uses it to solicit men for prostitution. However, she's also competing for a women-only calendar for the Navajo Nation, which could be ruined if her secret is exposed.

Unless I'm told otherwise, Moore isn't transgendered in real-life, and I have no problem with an actual woman playing a transgendered woman, but there are some problematic questions that arise. In the film, Sick Boy is attracted to Felixia after seeing her in a grocery store. He clearly notices her huge breasts but doesn't notice her huge penis. If Felixia was born a boy, then how does she have such huge and realistic-looking breasts? Did she have surgery? Wouldn't that have cost a lot of money? Why not also have bottom surgery?

There's no answer to any of these questions in Freeland's film, and all of that can be overlooked, but there's inconsistency in Felixia's behavior about how open she is about her transgendered status to people in the Navajo community, which paints an inconsistent picture of transphobia there. I suppose that Freeland is perhaps saying that the problem is more in Felixia's head than it actually is in real-life.

Morningstar Angeline also co-stars as Nizhoni, a young Navajo woman who was orphaned at a young age and then adopted by a white couple who raised her away from the reservation, so she knows nothing of Navajo culture or tradition. She's Christian. She wants to be a missionary. She also wants to go to college probably not a high statistic for people in that community. She's called an "apple," red on the outside and white on the inside. Yet, she's never known her biological family.

Unfortunately, Nizhoni's reunion with her biological family doesn't occur until the very end of the movie. Freeland should have had the reunion earlier if not at the top of the film. It would have made Nizhoni's story not feel so disparate. Nizhoni feeling so disparate could be purposeful in that she is quite disconnected from her heritage, but, simply from a writing and filmmaking standpoint, it would have been more effective to have Nizhoni interacting with the other main characters, Sick Boy and Felixia. One of whom is her biological relative.

It's a bit of a crime that Angeline and Bitsui didn't get a scene together. They are the film's two strongest actors. Having the two bounce off each other with the fact that both have this opposing situation where she is trying to get closer to the area and the people in it and he's trying to get away from it would have been interesting.

The film opens on February 20, 2015 in limited theaters.

Three Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 32 mins.


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