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Heading South

Morrisa Maltz

The Unknown Country (2022)

In “Certain Women” Lily Gladstone made a colossal impression in a mostly wordless part as a lonely rancher hungering after Kristen Stewart. She’s going to hit the big time with the upcoming “Killers of the Flower Moon,” but “The Unknown Country” as shown at SXSW Film Festival is a movie she made for herself. She cowrote the story with writer-director Morrisa Maltz, editor Vanara Taing and Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, who is one of the producers and also plays a version of herself. This group of women have created a fascinating story about how one Indigenous woman must figure out how to rebuild her life with very little to go on. And it’s not that you can’t go home again, but you might not necessarily want to.

Tana (Ms. Gladstone) has recently lost her grandmother, for whom she was a carer for the last several years. She’s at a loose end with her unwelcome free time and her grief and surprised to get a call from her younger cousin Lainey (Ms. Bearkiller Shangreaux), who is finally marrying her childhood sweetheart Devin (Devin Shangreaux), father to her elementary-school-age daughter Jazzy (Jasmine Bearkiller Shangreaux). Tana and her grandmother lived in Minnesota, well away from the family hometown on a reservation in South Dakota, but she likes her cousin and has no excuse to stay away. And so Tana returns to help with wedding preparations and to make awkward small talk with relatives she hasn’t seen in years. The wedding itself is adorable, with both bride and groom weeping tears of joy while their daughter plays a noisy game on someone’s phone. Everyone keeps saying how welcome Tana is, but her guarded body language answers for her.

But the homecoming is not the point. What “The Unknown Country” is interested in is the contrast between how people appear on the surface and the choices they made to end up that way. This is done through vignettes that briefly tell the stories of people Tana meets in passing, including a waitress (the late Pam Richter, to whom the movie is dedicated), a motel clerk (Scott Stampe), a dancehall owner (Teresa Boyd) and a gas-station clerk (Dale Leander Toller), as well as Lainey and Jazzy. The grandmother’s absence is keenly felt, but not much discussed, even among the relatives who did not attend her funeral. The only exception is when her brother (Richard Ray Whitman) gives Tana a suitcase of his sister’s possessions, which includes mysterious photographs as well as a homemade dress. And that gift prompts the movie’s final act, an impulsive thousand-mile drive to the place where the mysterious photos were taken. And it’s only then we get to see Tana smiling and relaxed, happy in herself and confident in moving alone through the world.

While it’s refreshing how the movie thoroughly rejects the trope of a city woman embracing small-town life – especially in a small town heavy with personal history – the story’s emotional core doesn’t belong to Tana. This is not because Ms. Gladstone isn’t capable as an actress – just watch the scene at the street fair, where the horse-drawn ski obstacle course can’t compete with her measuring up the men who try to outdo each other in desperate flirting. It’s because the loss of the grandmother is so overwhelming it’s almost too sad to talk about. Tana would give anything to know her grandmother’s own secret history, but has no direct knowledge and very few clues. But what she finds instead is the kindness of strangers. Their shared secret histories are her signposts; a group she meets in a bar are able to solve a few of the clues for her; and the end is a bittersweet attempt at a reckoning. It’s here cinematographer Andrew Hajek’s fondness for lens flare meets a worthy setting. The finale might not be accurate; and it might not be fully understood; but Tana does her best and after such a loss that’s a pretty incredible achievement. As is this movie, a quietly confident achievement that knows exactly what it wanted to do, and then went and did it. You could hardly have a better calling card; let’s hope that it elevates more than Ms. Gladstone to the big time.


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