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Review: Heartfelt drama ‘Te Ata’ lacks verve of its celebrated Native American subject

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Earnest and respectful to a fault, “Te Ata” tells the inspiring true tale of groundbreaking Native American actress and storyteller Mary Frances “Te Ata” Thompson with equal parts grace and unsubtlety.

Between director Nathan Frankowski’s overly measured hand, Esther Luttrell’s often on-the-nose script (story by Luttrell and Jeannie Barbour) and dutiful turn by a lovely Q'orianka Kilcher (“The New World”) in the title role (Boriana Williams plays Te Ata as a youngster), the film rarely soars with the kind of authentic spirit and passion needed to fully sell this decidedly old-fashioned material.

Set from Te Ata’s early 1900s childhood in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma, where the film was shot) with her traditionalist Chickasaw father (Gil Birmingham) and more open-minded white mother (Brigid Brannagh), to her years in college and, later, as a budding Broadway star, celebrity storyteller and future wife of educator-astronomer Clyde Fisher (Mackenzie Astin), the movie’s chief strength is as a vital reminder of the systematic oppression and bigotry Native Americans have long endured.

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The pivotal scenes of Te Ata presenting the songs and stories of the Chickasaw and other Native American cultures to increasingly appreciative audiences, including a 1933 performance at the White House, feel heartfelt but, like much else here, perfunctory.

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‘Te Ata’

Rating: PG, for some thematic elements including a brief violent image

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; AMC Orange 30

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