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‘Te Ata’ (review)

Produced by Paul Sirmons
Written by Jeannie Barbour, Esther Luttrell
Directed by Nathan Frankowski
Starring Q’orianka Kilcher, Graham Greene,
Gil Birmingham, Mackenzie Astin, Cindy Pickett,
Brigid Brannagh, and Marissa Skell

 

Q’orianka Kilcher, who was such a revelation as Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s The New World, stars in the true story of Te Ata, who toured the country telling stories of the Chickasaw people.

This old-fashioned (but never boring) biopic hits all the expected notes — her first teacher who encourages her, the emotional first time her father sees her perform — but in an unexpectedly warm and heartfelt way.

The film begins in 1906 when what had been Indian territory became the state of Oklahoma and Te Ata was just 10. (A younger actress plays her as a child.)

We see her impetuousness when she insists on going along to a tribal dance. Her overprotective father (Gil Birmingham) thinks she’s not old enough, but her mother (Brigid Brannagh), argues to let her come.

The same pattern is repeated when Te Ata (now played by Kilcher) wants to attend the state women’s college. When she gets there, she finds she’s the only Native American. Her roommates are polite, if rather taken aback. It’s not until the drama teacher, Miss Davis (Cindy Pickett, aka Ferris Bueller‘s mom!) encourages her to join her “expression” class that the other girls give her a chance.

Te Ata is preparing a Shakespeare monologue for class, just like all the other girls, but after Miss Davis overhears her telling her roommate a Chickasaw story, she suggests she do that instead and set herself apart from “all the sugar cookies.”

From there, she’s invited to tour the country with one of Miss Davis’s friends, something her father opposes. Especially since the government is cracking down on “unsavory activities” like “pagan dances.” Her father isn’t happy about it, but he does tell her she needs a stage name (instead of her given name of Mary Frances Thompson), and her mother suggests “Te Ata,” the name her aunt used to call her.

Eventually, she ends up in New York, where she has her heart set on Broadway, but does private performance on the side. That’s where she meets future husband Professor Clyde Fisher (Mackenzie Astin), who’s spent some time studying Indian culture. Astin and Kilcher have wonderful chemistry and it’s easy to root for these two to get together.

She ends up performing at the White House for Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt — and in front of one of the politicians we saw patronizingly dismissing Chickasaw Nation Governor Douglas Johnston (Graham Greene) earlier in the film.

It’s the second film this year, by the way to co-star Birmingham (Hell or High Water) and Greene, who appeared together in Wind River. This film couldn’t be more different in tone and subject matter, but both films give Birmingham some good scenes.

There are a few times in the film when the people in Te Ata’s life seem to be choosing her destiny for her: What if she did prefer doing a Shakespeare monologue? What if she did want to act on Broadway? But since she ended up teaching the world about her culture —and seems instrumental in getting the practice of native ceremonies decriminalized — the choice to embrace her heritage was clearly the right one for her.

I had a few nitpicks, including that the actress cast as Eleanor Roosevelt looks nothing like her — and is a solid 20 years too old for the part! But seeing the photos of the real Te Ata and Clyde at the end confirms the rightness of their casting.

At one point, Fisher tells Te Ata, “Each time you take the stage, you bring light to a dark world.” That’s the same feeling I had watching this film. With so much turmoil and heartache in the news, this is a lovely film that was a bright spot in a busy, stressful week.

 

Rating: 4 out of 5

 

Te Ata opens in limited release on October 13th

 

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