The 1998 bittersweet comedy "Smoke Signals," drawn from stories by Sherman Alexie, was a groundbreaker -- both artistically, as a work of sophistication and maturity, and creatively, as the first feature film written, produced and directed by Native Americans. Even more venturesome is the bravura but intimate "The Business of Fancydancing," which Alexie directed as well as wrote, this time drawing from his poetry.
Each film deals with a friendship between two young men that reaches back to boyhood, and each turns on a reunion precipitated by a funeral. But "The Business of Fancydancing" is anything but the warm tale of friendship and reconciliation that "Smoke Signals" was. Nor is it a conventional narrative, beyond the outline of its story, about a widely acclaimed and successful poet, Seymour Polatkin (Evan Adams), who at his readings declares that he is "proud to be an American Indian gay man" -- a pride that, unsurprisingly, has been hard-earned in all its aspects. (He also sometimes explains that his name came from a Russian ancestor.)
Seymour returns to his native Spokane, Wash., reservation for the first time in nearly a decade for the funeral of a childhood friend, Mouse (Swil Kanim), a gifted violinist who has committed suicide. Seymour's journey, undertaken out of a sense of obligation, is not in search of reconciliation but for self-acceptance and affirmation that he has taken the right path.
Seymour, who lives in Seattle with his lover (Kevin Phillip), is not expecting a warm welcome, as his people resent the autobiographical candor of his poetry, infused by bitterness as well as tenderness. He knows his onetime best friend, Aristotle Joseph (Gene Tagaban), will be certain to resent his presence. The two had been co-valedictorians of their reservation high school class and had gone to university together in Seattle. But Aristotle, who had hoped to be a pediatrician, flunked out halfway through, succumbing to feelings of alienation and of bias toward him. Aristotle has viewed Seymour's growing renown jealously, sneeringly regarding him as "the little public relations warrior."
When Seymour embarks on the five-hour trip to his past, he is also journeying into his imagination and memories. "Fancydancing" shifts easily between the two, and cuts occasionally to sequences back at the reservation that depict the ceremonial preparations of Mouse's remains for the funeral and reveal much hostility toward Seymour. His only defender is Agnes (Michelle St. John), an intelligent woman with whom he shares an enduring emotional bond.
Along the way, his musings, which include a rigorous interrogation from a severe interviewer (Rebecca Carroll), are punctuated by passages of Native American rituals, ceremonies, dances and chants, all of which have shaped Seymour's psyche and poetry. This surrealist approach gives "Fancydancing," enriched by Alexie's choice of contemporary Native American songs on the soundtrack, its captivating, distinctive power, and it bristles with a passion and intelligence too intense to allow the film's style to seem pretentious. Cinematographer-editor Holly Taylor shot "Fancydancing" on high-grade Sony digital equipment, creating a dynamic flow of highly expressive yet uncluttered images.
A fervent assertion that an individual has the right to pursue his own path lies at the vibrant heart of "The Business of Fancydancing." Adams is a compact, appealing young actor who reveals Seymour to be a truth-teller with the courageous heart of a warrior and a crackling intellect, a fiercely articulate man unafraid to be abrasive, yet capable of kindness and affection. St. John is easily his match as Agnes, but while Tagaban lives up to the description of Aristotle as "a beautiful warrior," he at times is arch and self-conscious as an actor -- although, fortunately, not to the extent of detracting from the overall effect of the film.
Intriguingly, those at the reservation who otherwise resent Seymour and his success don't seem bothered by his sexual orientation, yet "The Business of Fancydancing" leaves the impression that if membership in one minority can make an individual strong, belonging to two can it make him doubly so.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Some language, some sexual content, complex adult themes.
Evan Adams ... Seymour Polatkin
Michelle St. John ... Agnes Roth
Gene Tagaban ... Aristotle Joseph
Swil Kanim ... Mouse
An Outrider release of a FallsApart Production. Writer-director Sherman Alexie. Producers Larry Estes, Scott Rosenfelt. Executive producers Bradford C. Bond and John Benear. Cinematographer-editor Holly Taylor. Production designer Jonathan Saturen. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
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