Distinctive and conventional in roughly equal measure, “Drunktown’s Finest” shines a spotlight on Native American lives criminally under-explored by mainstream cinema but does so with familiar tales of struggle and redemption. Inspired by a “20/20” piece that dubbed Gallup, N.M. “Drunktown, USA,” debuting writer-director Sydney Freeland seems to be just starting to spread her wings here. Wobbly result appears destined for niche play, though it could find a receptive audience via streaming and specialty cable services.
Pic splits its time among three wildly diverse young adults: rebellious Sick Boy (Jeremiah Bitsui) drinks himself into a stupor most nights to avoid the responsibilities of his pregnant wife (Elizabeth Frances) and impending military enlistment; bookish Nizhoni (Morningstar Angeline Wilson) lives a sheltered life outside the reservation with her adopted white parents, but dreams of reuniting with her birth family; and self-assured trans woman Felixia (Carmen Moore) turns tricks for cash and sets her sights on auditioning to be a part of the annual Women of the Navajo calendar.
Freeland takes her time bringing her characters together, allowing the audience an opportunity to marinate in the unique experiences of each individual first. The slow-burn approach is smartly executed, and the intersecting plotlines veer toward schematic only during Sick Boy and Felixia’s chance encounter at a grocery store, which leads to an eventful night out. Although Nizhoni’s story is hampered by some unnecessary comic relief, both Sick Boy and Felixia emerge as compelling characters worthy of further exploration. Felixia’s relationship with her loving and utterly nonjudgmental grandparents (warmly played by Richard Ray Whitman and Toni C. Oliver) is especially affecting.
Unfortunately, “Drunktown’s Finest” too often suffers from stilted performances and scripting. Bitsui (who had a recurring role on seasons two through four of “Breaking Bad”) is the cast standout as a young man trying to reconcile a bleak future with the potential game-changer of becoming a father. That tension between a lack of opportunity in the area and the firm foundation of family and community runs throughout the film, to varying degrees of success.
Moore and Wilson are less polished in the other key roles, but Freeland tends to find ways to make their naturalism work for the characters. Supporting players prove to be considerably more uneven, while the adequate tech package neither distracts from nor elevates the storytelling, which is sensitively handled if ultimately too slight to leave a lasting impression.