Originally published in Indian Life magazine.
Two pretty decent films about Native Americans (and featuring Native American actors) have been released on DVD recently.
“The Road to Paloma” stars Jason Momoa, who also directed the film. Momoa, who is of Hawaiian, Pawnee, German and Irish descent, is probably best known for playing the fierce Khal Drogo in HBO’s series “Game of Thrones.” He’s also the star of SundanceTV’s series “The Red Road,” which is about Ramapouh Mountain Indians in New Jersey. In fact, according to the internet, he got that role because of this movie.
Momoa is easy to look at, an icon of beefy masculinity, but he also handles himself admirably behind the camera. “Road to Paloma” can’t boast the most interesting or original plot, but it is chock full of beautiful and striking images, and there’s a sense of moody grace to its proceedings. And even though the whole thing is pretty much a cliche, Momoa manages to keep it from feeling campy, silly, or ham-handed.
He plays a member of the Mojave tribe on the run from the police, after avenging the violent death of his mother. The death and the vengeance all take place before the movie starts; it’s essentially a road trip movie, as Momoa rides his tricked out chopper across painted desert and endeavours to deliver his mother’s ashes to their final resting place. Along the way, he befriends a wayward rock star, fixes Lisa Bonet’s radiator (Bonet and Momoa are husband and wife in real life, and she also co-stars in “The Red Road), and visits his baby nephew. But the FBI are on this trail, and it’s only a matter of time before this idyllic journey must come to a tragic end.
“The Lesser Blessed” takes place in the Northwest Territories, which feels like a completely different planet from the canyons and rock formations Momoa motorcycles past. Based on this movie, there’s no beauty up north, only bleakness, and people trying their hardest to fight off both the coldness outside and the darkness within.
Joel Evans plays a loner Dogrib (Tlicho) teenager who is contantly picked on and doesn’t have any friends. He’s in love with the prettiest girl in school, but can hardly say hi to her. He’s new in town, and has a dark secret, which only one other boy in town knows about, and that kid seems determined to make his life miserable.
But then Kiowa Gordon shows up, and everything gets a little better. Gordon has the great hair, winning smile and easy charisma of a young Johnny Depp. And he knows how to fight. He stands up for Evans, befriends him, and then seduces the pretty girl. This may not be the ideal situation for Evans — he’s essentially the third wheel everywhere they go — but it’s a lot better than things used to be.
“The Lesser Blessed” is essentially a high school coming of age story, and, like “Road to Paloma,” isn’t exactly the most original material. When Evans’ big secret is revealed, he discovers who his real friends are, and finds out that sometimes the people who seem hardest to trust are most deserving of it, and the ones you think are close are going to bail on you as soon as things get tough. These might not be the most profound revelations, but, like “Paloma,” this movie doesn’t oversell itself, and the result is a pleasant, if moody, movie experience.
In both of these movies, sense of place is important, but the places they portray are somewhat romanticized on the screen. The deserts in the southwest are filled with a rugged beauty that seems made for motorcycle road trips; however, they’re also full of big empty spaces between those beautiful places, and those never show up in “Road to Paloma.” And, while I’ve never had the opportunity to visit the Northwest Territories, I trust that life there isn’t quite as bleak and ugly as it appears to be in “The Lesser Blessed.” There’s beauty to be found up North, too, I’m sure of it.
I’d recommend both of these movies to anyone interested in Native cinema — they may not be big award-winners, but they’re both solidly entertaining and artistic pieces of indie filmmaking. However, viewer beware: there is some objectionable material in both of them. “Paloma” features a scene in a strip club, with all that that entails, and the teenagers in “Blessed” use drugs at a house party. Neither movie glorifies this kind of behavior (in fact, “Paloma” is clearly frowning on it,) but it’s there, nonetheless. I have no doubt that some people will be offended by it. You’ve been warned.