Chris Eyre's latest production, Imprint, is not an "Indian" movie.
Yes, it does take place on a reservation and includes Native cultural and religious references. Yes, it does have Indians playing Indians and the conflicts facing contemporary Natives. It has all those things. But Imprint is not an "Indian" movie. At least, not by conventional thinking. And that's to Eyre's and director Michael Linn's credit, as they have redefined what we've come to expect of a film depicting Native America and in this case, women in Native America.
Starring Tonantzin Carmelo, the film is a suspense thriller in the Hitchcock mold—otherworldly forces, evil in disguise, and regret leading to redemption. Most significantly, Imprint's biggest imprint is its portrayal of women; neither victims nor backdrops, they are the force and soul of the entire story.
Yet, while conveying a women's perspective, the plot never succumbs to becoming a "chick flick." The film opens in a Denver courtroom with prosecuting attorney Shayla Stonefeather's (Carmelo) successful murder conviction of a Lakota boy from Pine Ridge—her childhood home. Emotionally wrung by the high-profile trial, she escapes by going back to the reservation to visit her mother and dying father.
Carmelo is smartly cast as the earnest young woman driven to succeed only to begin questioning the price of her quest. She's determined, she's attractive, and the girl takes crap from nobody—nobody, that is, except her smarmy white boyfriend (Cory Brusseau) whose bald ambition is his eventual undoing. Impressively, Carmelo appears in every frame in the film. This is Shayla's story; with Lakota mysticism providing the dramatic hook.
If home is where the heart is, then Shayla's heart needs resuscitation. Her dad is withering before her eyes; the folks she grew up with have spray-painted her car with the word "apple," an epithet describing Natives who've morphed into whiteness at the expense of their own identity. Even her mother (Carla-Rae Holland) is questioning her loyalties. "What happened," she asks, "to the little girl that wanted to come back and help her people?"
Holland and Carmelo seamlessly coalesce as mom and daughter. Both actresses comfortably use body language—head nods, gestures, knowing glances—creating a distinct non-verbal dialect all families have. It works. And it's the scenes between these two, more than the hair-raising arc, which lift the plot from a pedestrian thriller to a thoughtful drama.
Of course, we can't forget the men. Considering Eyre and the writing team of Linn and Keith Davenport are all males, it's curious how they depict their fellow fellows. Imprint's males are a sorry bunch indeed—a killer, sad sack, side kick, victim, and loser. Take your pick.
Michael Spears, as Tom, is the studly reservation cop who Shayla discarded when she followed the bright lights to the big city. His stalwart character is relegated to the background; but honestly you won't care all that much. Clearly, Tom is no match for her spirited, independent nature. Worse is Shayla's boyfriend Jonathan. He's a self-serving, yuppie jerk—albeit too predictably so. How much more interesting if his character was something other than the stereotypical white politico; maybe African American, Latino, or even Native. Now that would challenge our perceptions of a self-serving, yuppie jerk!
Despite these few shortcomings, Imprint succeeds. Shayla eventually finds her way back, spiritually and literally; providing a kind word and sandwich for the beggar she would have stepped over only weeks before. Her mother defines perseverance; her wayward brother, played by Tokala Clifford, is seen only in glimpses.
Nevertheless, all three are people you wouldn't mind getting to know better. The film calls for a sequel, even a series—Carmelo's heroine would be a refreshing antidote to the vacuous Barbie doll celebrities girls have as contemporary role models.
Imprint stamps an indelible new mark. Because this film, above all else, is for the girls. Thanks to a couple of guys—Chris Eyre and Michael Linn—who appreciate that there's a lot more to women of any ethnicity than being relegated to a "chick flick."