Why indie films? Why favor small films with spartan production values and no computer graphics and little if any set designs?
Because of films like Mile Post 398.
Honesty is not a word used often to describe anything coming out of Hollywood. Not in the corporate entities running the industry, not the stars, not the products cynically contrived to meet the tastes of the targeted movie-going market of 15-year-old boys. Not real. Not a kick in-the-gut.
But Honesty IS the word to describe Shonie and Andee De La Rosa's feature completed last summer on the Navajo Nation; it is authentic and definitely a kick-in-the-gut. Life on the rez and not all of it is pretty. That fact unnerves some who say it reinforces negative stereotypes of contemporary Natives. Hogwash, they say. Because good or bad, that's reality.
And so is their film.
Mile Post 398 opens with a flashback sequence of a young boy cowering in a truck watching his intoxicated father slap around his mom outside a dance hall; back home, the fighting quickly spirals out of control. A gunshot. Fast-forward to present day. A group of men surround a bonfire illuminating the desert night sky. Drunk and still drinking drinking drinking more; laughing the hollow laugh of the desperately hollow. They stagger and hold each other up, literally…meanwhile pulling each other down, emotionally.
Cloyd Begay, (Beau Benally) is the terrorized boy all grown up and destined to repeat the sorry legacy of his parents. But with one major difference. The De La Rosa's Cloyd is not so numbed he can't feel and see what alcoholism is doing to his wife, son, and ultimately to himself.
This is Cloyd's story, which Shonie acknowledges is similar to his own past and many other Native men. We witness his struggle, and as is often true in real versus reel life, not always with a happy ending. Benally is believable as the beleaguered protagonist; in fact, all the lead characters—Ernie Tsosie and James Junes (from the Navajo comedy team "James and Ernie") and Gerald Vandever show surprisingly few rookie missteps.
This is particularly worth noting considering the emotionally charged plot. Both Benally and Tsosie, who plays the sympathetic Ray, capture "it" in the scene where both are sitting back to back in the desolate quiet of an Arizona canyon. Like inside a confessional, they admit their sins, only this time no redemption is forthcoming. At times, Junes needs to take it down a notch with his scene chewing excesses. Nonetheless, he mostly succeeds in portraying the deeply addicted Marty as pathetic, disgusting and simply sad. As he slurs and stumbles and fumbles, it's painful to watch, yet you do. Like a train wreck.
Mile Post 398 is stripped of any pretense; you are in Kayenta, Arizona with the diners, gift shops and gas stations, the endless highway and breathtaking scenery familiar in so many westerns. That, along with the soundtrack, cast and setting captures contemporary Navajo life more than any film since Blackhorse Lowe's 5th World.
The very feature that makes this movie unique, however, is what may lead mainstream audiences to consider it simply an "ethnic" film. That would be unfortunate, because the theme of fighting your inner demons resulting from a larger cultural pathology resonates far beyond the canyons of the Four Corners region.
Especially in a film this honest. Real and a kick-in-the-gut.
DVDs of Mile Post 398 are available this month. For more info, please visit: www.sheepheadfilms.com