“Grand Avenue” is a compelling story of Native American survival in polarized urban society. It reveals, in illuminating, compassionate fashion, what life is like beyond the endless middle-class platitudes that dominate most prime-time programming. It is television drama at its very best.
The first small-screen project produced by Robert Redford, “Grand Avenue” is based upon the book of the same title, written and scripted by Greg Sarris. The film depicts a brief dramatic period in the life of three related Native American families living in Santa Rosa, Calif.
When Mollie, a Pomo Indian, is obliged to leave the Lokaya reservation after the death of her husband, she moves with her children to the only refuge she knows--her cousin Anna’s house on Grand Avenue. But the neighborhood is a difficult one, with a simmering confrontation between Latino and African American gangs. Mollie’s daughter, Justine, drawn to partying and hanging out, is attracted to one of the gang leaders, and Mollie discovers that Steven, a former lover, is one of her neighbors.
It remains for Mollie’s other daughter, Alice, to play the role of surrogate mother, holding the family together and saving her sister from a potentially life-threatening encounter with gang girls. The connections between the families reach a point of high stress when Justine begins to date Steven’s son, Raymond. Mollie, torn by the knowledge that Justine is actually the offspring of her affair with Steven--and, therefore, Raymond’s half-sister--breaks her tenuous hold on sobriety and goes off on a drunken tear.
In counterpoint to the spiraling tension between Mollie and Steven, Alice makes a strong connection with an elderly woman, Nellie, who is the neighborhood’s most important remaining tie with the old Native American ways. But the enigmatic manner in which those ways function in contemporary urban life becomes apparent when Nellie’s ministrations are effective in saving one young life but cannot protect another.
The interrelated personal stories of “Grand Street” are complex and absorbing, teeming with life, drama and humor. Revelatory of a class and a way of life that is too often ignored by television, they remind us that solutions are never simple, that threads are often left untied.
The cast is superb--perhaps especially so since Redford and co-producers Paul Aaron and Rachel Pfeffer clearly did not feel the need to call upon the usual suspects of television’s long-form dramas. Emmy Award winner A Martinez (“Santa Barbara”) gives a superb low-key portrayal of Steven. Sheila Tousey is completely convincing in the difficult role of Mollie. Tantoo Cardinal brings a penetrating sense of reality to the multilayered character of Nellie. And Deeny Dakota handles Justine’s subtle transitions with ease.
* “Grand Avenue” premieres Sunday on HBO at 8 p.m., and repeats on Tuesday, July 12, 20 and 24.