I can’t keep up with as many TV shows as some people do these days, but I have a few, and right now the one I love the most is Reservation Dogs. It’s on FX (and streaming on Hulu) and so far there are only 2 seasons totaling 18 half hour episodes, so it wouldn’t be that hard to catch up on. It centers on a group of teenagers who live on a reservation in Oklahoma, though sometimes it veers off to be more about their elders. It reminds me of my other favorite show, Atlanta, in that it has this A+ ensemble of core characters surrounding straight woman Elora (Devery Jacobs) who are each so hilarious in their own way that whenever it focuses on one of them I start to think that’s my favorite character. They have their funny shit they obsess over and their ways of saying things but maybe the funniest stuff is just their expressions seeing and listening to all the ridiculous things they encounter. (And the truth is my favorite is Willie Jack, played by Paulina Alexis.)
It’s also a really heartfelt and emotional show about friendship while going through shit, so it’s definitely made me cry more than any other show this funny, or maybe any other show. I don’t usually cry at TV shows, but this one gets me, in more ways than one. It’s proof of concept for the power of representation, because it’s reportedly the first ever TV show with all indigenous directors and writers, and it’s about Native life and tradition, and Oklahoma, none of which aligns with my experiences at all. And yet the specificity makes it real, and the problems they’re dealing with are universal.
The show is from Taika Waititi’s production company, and he’s credited as co-creator because he co-wrote the pilot, but it’s really the baby of Sterlin Harjo, who wrote and/or directed more episodes than anybody else. And the reason Waititi knew to offer Harjo a show is that he knew him as an indie filmmaker. It’s gonna be a while until season 3 – I figure in the meantime I should I catch up with Harjo’s movies.
So I watched his 2007 debut FOUR SHEETS TO THE WIND. I admit I don’t remember ever hearing of it, but co-star Tamara Podemski won a Sundance special jury prize for it, and was nominated for best supporting actress at the Independent Spirit Awards (up against Anna Kendrick, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Marisa Tomei and Cate Blanchett, who won for I’M NOT THERE). It also won best director and actor at the American Indian Film Festival.
The movie opens with a young man dragging a body by the feet through the dirt. The young man is Cufe Smallhill (Cody Lightning, THE BRAVE, SMOKE SIGNALS, BRICK), the body is his dad Frankie (Richard Ray Whitman, “Chief Dan,” MISSIONARY MAN), who committed suicide and asked to have his body sunk into “the pond where the lady lives,” because “funerals ain’t nothin by a big circus.” So that’s what Cufe does, without even his mother Cora (Jeri Arredondo, “Indian Girl,” KILL ME AGAIN) knowing yet.
He shows her the note and tells her what he did, and she tells him to go tell his cousin Jim (Jon Proudstar, BLOOD RELATIVES). When he gets in his pickup truck to drive there he looks down at the passenger seat where there are some tools, work gloves, an empty coffee cup, a plastic bag of dominoes. Random leftovers from a life.
Cora says, “It’s expected to have a funeral, body and all,” but nobody wants to drag the body out of the pond, so she agrees to let them fake it. This makes it awkward when her old white friend Sonny (Mike Randleman, GRAND THEFT PARSONS) convinces her to accept the gift of a coffin he bought for himself after it was used as a prop in a play. “It just makes me feel so good to know Frankie’s gonna make his final journey in a coffin I made. Or— or fixed up.” Jim works at the funeral home, so he and Cufe are able to fill the coffin with watermelons without anybody knowing. This is less of a comedy than Reservation Dogs, but it has some of the same deadpan oddness.
Cufe’s older sister Miri (Tamara Podemski, DANCE ME OUTSIDE) lives in Tulsa, and seems somewhat estranged from Mom. She has to steal gas and get a jump to drive to the funeral and then her car breaks down when she’s almost there. She gets there late but then she hugs her mom and all is forgiven. That’s how her life seems to go.
Afterwards she suggests Cufe should come stay with her some time, and he soon takes her up on it. But he doesn’t call first. He knocks on the wrong door and meets her cute neighbor Francie (Laura Bailey, who’s not on camera much, but has over 500 IMDb credits from voicing anime dubs and video games, and she’s on Critical Role, which I guess is a D&D web series?). Miri’s out, so Cufe wanders and ends up at a bar, where he runs into Francie again.
This is partly a romance, but not the kind where everything’s great and then some fuck up or misunderstanding happens to push them apart and then they make up and it’s great. It’s just about a small period where they enjoy hanging out together and it’s sweet, and maybe it will last, maybe it won’t. They lay on the bed in her authentic arty-girl-in-her-twenties-apartment, they smoke a little weed, he tells her about his dad. How he’d never tell you how he felt about you but sometimes you’d catch him giving an approving smile. They’d go fishing and only say four words the whole time and feel like they’d talked all day. He doesn’t tell her about sinking Dad’s body in the same pond where they fished.
In other scenes his dad’s quiet seems like a problem. Cora would go weeks without hearing a word from him, and seems to have been miserable. We hear a story about Miri asking him for help with something when she was little. “He just sat there not saying anything. She never asked anyone for help again.”
So when Miri hears that Cufe had “a whole conversation” with Francie she’s happy about it. We can see some of the things he has in common with his dad, starting with how unemotionally he took his dad’s suicide and body disposal. He doesn’t seem in danger of never talking, but he’s definitely shy and out of place. There’s a relatable level of low key social awkwardness in cafes, bars, and at a party with Francie.
But Miri was right. Going to the city where there’s a little more to do, and more people to meet, was good for her brother. It seems to have gotten him out of a rut and helped him see more possibilities in life. It’s also good that they’re together, because Miri is clearly going through some shit. Cufe notices, but he doesn’t say anything, just tries to be there to help. She’s dating various dipshits, she comes home too drunk many nights, she gets fired from her barista job for skimming from the till. Twenty dollars. Not worth it. I really like their grown up sibling bond. I like that everybody cares about each other – there’s tension between mother and daughter, but they don’t fight. It’s not about that kind of drama.
I’m sure some of this is because they’re autobiographical, and some of it is just things Harjo likes, but there are many similarities and connections between FOUR SHEETS TO THE WIND and Reservation Dogs. Get this: the movie starts with a narrator telling his grandma’s story about “Rabbit ate Bear whole.” We’re told that Cufe Smallhill’s first name means rabbit, so obviously there’s some meaning there. But then one of Reservation Dogs’ protagonists is named Bear Smallhill. Hmmm.
Both Cufe and Bear dream of a trip to California as a symbol of finding something more in life. And both work a job as roofers to save up money for it. Cody Lightning also kind of reminds me of D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, who plays Bear – not physically, but in his expressions and gestures, the way he fidgets and plays with his hair and looks down all the time, but can also be cool and charming.
Harjo even carried over the idea of wearing funeral clothes as cool clothes. The kids name themselves “Reservation Dogs” because they’re hanging around in their jackets with unbuttoned collars and loose ties after their friend’s funeral. Here Cufe wears his dad’s suit to the funeral, then his mom tells him to bring it to Tulsa. He wears it all the time and gets complimented by a hipster at a party.
In Reservation Dogs all the adults in town seem to have grown up together, allude nostalgically to their younger wilder days, and tell one of the kids what her mom was like. Here that’s Cora and Sonny. “Used to have some fun, eh?” And Jim, who’s older than Cufe, tells him stories about his dad being cool when he was younger.
There are also some overlapping cast members. Tamara Podemski, who plays Miri, has a memorable role as Bear’s mom’s cousin Teenie on Reservation Dogs. (Her real life sisters Sarah and Jennifer play Bear’s and Willie Jack’s moms, respectively.) Jon Proudstar, who plays Jim, plays the really funny character Leon on the show, and Richard Ray Whitman (Cufe’s late father) is on several episodes as Old Man Fixico.
Harjo has greatly improved since this movie, especially with his visuals. But he seems to have already been great at working with actors, and his humor and love for his characters were already evident. I really enjoyed Sterlin Harjo Movie #1, so I’ll be watching more of them.