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MOVIE REVIEW : Comic Quest on ‘Powwow Highway’

Times Film Critic

Very rarely, an actor’s presence casts a shadow almost larger than the production that shelters him--or her. You saw it with Chief Dan George in “Little Big Man.” With Louise Fletcher in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” And you’ll discover it again in “Powwow Highway,” (AMC Century 14), a little zinger of a comedy with a rare backbone of intelligence; unsurprising when you learn that the debuting director is “Repo Man” co-producer, Jonathan Wacks.

As it follows the careening path of a pair of buddies, heading on a rescue mission with diametrically different ideas of how to get there--and how quickly--it’s a pretty irresistible movie. But for pure lovability, it’s given a run for its money by the amazing young Canadian actor it presents, Gary Farmer, who co-stars with A Martinez.

Farmer plays Philbert Bono, a gentle, mammoth Cheyenne from Lame Deer, Mont., who gets it into his head to follow the spiritual path. It’s harder to find that path now than it was in simpler times. Now your pony is a junkyard Buick Wildcat, circa 1964, and the Old Ones, who could answer questions about the way of a warrior, are fed up with being sages and would rather let television play across their faces, undisturbed.

But there is never a doubt that Philbert, a more-than-6 foot, 280-pound seeker, will make it to warriorhood. For one thing, who could stop him? For another, who would want to? Pure goodness emanates from Farmer’s Philbert--a kind of sweetness that an audience reads instantly. The only time in recent movie memory that I can recall such sweetness returned in equal waves of affection toward a character was the furor that greeted E.T. . . . and Farmer as is far from mechanical as you can be.

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“Powwow Highway” quietly camouflages its serious concerns about American Indians, letting us absorb them cumulatively during this pell-mell odyssey. Disillusioned activist Buddy Red Bow (Martinez) and Philbert Bono trek together from Montana to Santa Fe, in the car Philbert has named “Protector.” Buddy has gotten a desperate call from his estranged sister, Bonnie (Joanelle Romero). She’s apparently been framed, then jailed with her two young daughters, in Santa Fe for possession for marijuana.

The men were at high school together, but Buddy’s intense political concerns and Philbert’s lifelong low-key flair have kept their paths separate. Apparently, his work has kept Buddy out of touch with his family too, since his sister’s phone call is the first news he’d had that he’s an uncle. Twice.

Wack’s direction of the screenplay, by Janet Heaney and Jean Stawarz, from the novel by David Seals, has a way of conveying hard facts obliquely but surely. As Toyomichi Kurita’s eloquent camera sweeps the mean, littered face of the Northern Cheyenne reservation, even the dog seems to be limping. “Powwow Highway” is full of such snapshots and panoramas, mute instruction for those who will see.

The film’s inspired comedy comes as Buddy’s unvented fury collides with Philbert’s quiet imperturbability. Philbert meanders, Buddy makes tracks; Philbert has spiritual stops to make on the way, Buddy may explode before he makes them all. It’s the set-up for every road comedy worth its octane, from “It Happened One Night” to “Midnight Run,” and already we know that the qualities of each man will rub off on the other.

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One of Philbert’s most important stops is the yearly powwow at Billings, Mont., an event Buddy sneers at. Indoors, in a gym , to him it’s a joke: “As though a few lousy beads was a culture or something.” Yet there’s an exchange here with a damaged Indian Vietnam vet, and the pull of the dancing itself that begins to speak to Buddy. (A beautiful moment by Martinez, this is one of the scenes that needs to play out longer, to really build and soar, and either Wacks or the independently made film’s budget held back at this point.)

Meanwhile, in Santa Fe, Bonnie’s self-reliant girls have found a way out of their detention home at the same time a feisty, lifelong friend Rabbit Layton (Amanda Wyss) arrives to make bail for Bonnie. The boys arrive at about the same time, only to run up against the bossy belligerence of the Santa Fe policewomen. It’s what makes Philbert’s solution to all their problems--and his cherubic deadpan as he goes about it--all the more satisfactory.

But it’s not amiable mix of characters at the end nor even the deeply satisfying action that fixes “Powwow Highway” (MPAA-rated R) permanently in our affections, although it has the sort of ending that makes kids at matinees split nearby eardrums with their delight.

It’s the sight of Philbert, leaving a token sacred to him at a sacred spot, or, the real power of Philbert, the storyteller, or best of all, Philbert at the break of dawn, the film’s most awesome memory.


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