The life and career of Te Ata, the Native American trailblazer who celebrated her people’s culture through performance and, in doing so, helped educate the country about Native traditions, is undeniably uplifting. But the well-intentioned biopic is ungainly, overtly articulating everything it doesn’t need to yet failing to explain much of what starts out as unclear about the tale. Lacking both fluidity and complexity, “Te Ata” is a functional but one-note tribute told through educational storytelling that, unlike its subject, doesn’t manage to inspire.
Director Nathan Frankowski and writer Esther Luttrell sabotage their work’s momentum from the start. In a 1906 opener, a young Mary Frances Thompson (Boriana Williams) narrates origin myths about her Chickasaw nation — located on land that would eventually become Oklahoma — while her father T.B. (Gil Birmingham) and her uncle, Chickasaw governor Douglas Johnson (Graham Greene), discuss their tribe’s rapidly changing political future. It’s a clunkily assembled introduction, with Mary’s time spent running through the woods and sitting by a river imbued with faux-Terrence Malick lyricism, and T.B. and Johnson’s discussions handled so cursorily that they confuse more than edify.
The film finds itself on somewhat more solid footing once Mary Frances is older (played by “The New World” star Q’orianka Kilcher), and — against the wishes of T.B., who wants her to stay home — enrolls in the Oklahoma College for Women. There, a teacher named Miss Davis (Cindy Pickett) witnesses Mary talking to a bird and, on that basis alone, recognizes the girl as a natural fit for her theater class. Soon, Miss Davis and the rest of Mary’s classmates are being wowed by her song-and-dance and spoken-word performances of cherished Chickasaw legends and lore. Encouraged by that reception, Mary Frances takes the advice of T.B. and her Caucasian mother, Bertie (Brigid Branagh), and assumes the stage name Te Ata.
Te Ata joins a road show and makes her way to New York where, after countless auditions, she finally lands a Broadway role — only to find that it’s not as fulfilling as commemorating her Chickasaw heritage through her own unique stage routines. She also falls in love with Dr. Clyde Fisher, a much older man who, as embodied by Mackenzie Astin, is as tolerant and open-minded as virtually everyone else in Frankowski’s soft-and-fuzzy film. Save for an incident involving the two fleeing a movie theater after watching a cartoon featuring ugly Native American stereotypes, Te Ata’s story is depicted as one in which she met little resistance on her way to eventual national fame, culminating with a performance at the first state dinner held by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, replete with an overnight stay in the Lincoln bedroom.
Kilcher conveys the defiant, radiant personality that helped Te Ata charm audiences, in the process becoming an embodiment of living history. Yet Frankowski dramatizes his material in ways that consistently undercut the performances. With much of the action bathed in warm, golden light and set to a soaring orchestral score, the film quickly proves monotonously uplifting. Moreover, the director’s habit of skimming through various stages of his protagonist’s odyssey via musical montages soon makes the enterprise feel like the cinematic equivalent of a Wikipedia entry.
While the import, and intention, of individuals scenes is always clear, the director’s execution, full of herky-jerky plotting and over-sentimental gestures, turns them into something more perfunctory than invigorating; one intellectually comprehends why Te Ata was so mesmerizing to people in the early 20th century, but the viewer is never stirred, much less swept away, by her admirable achievements. As with a white dog that Te Ata routinely sees — a symbolic device meant to underline how she’s following in her ancestor’s footsteps, as well as guiding her tribe into a brave new future — “Te Ata” negates any sense of wonder by showing, then telling, and then showing again.