Powwow Highway

October 2, 2012

The lot of the American Indian in the movies has been a sorry one, as we all know. The cinema hasn’t exactly been kind or fair to Native Americans, so when a movie comes along that manages to score a lot of payback points, yet does so in a way that’s more casual than strident, it’s cause for applause.

Powwow Highway is such a film, and from a peculiar source; this eminently American movie is produced by George Harrison’s Hand Made Films, of England, and directed by the producer of the punk classic Repo Man. (The Seattle run is its world premiere engagement, hard on the heels of a popular success at the recent United States Film Festival.)

It’s a funky travelogue that sticks to the generic restrictions of the road movie, with the requisite two buddies bopping down the highway and encountering more than they expected; it also blends in some pointed social comment.

The two buddies are coming from the same Cheyenne reservation in Montana, but from distinctly different directions. Philbert Bono (Gary Farmer) is a 300-pound simpleton, a dreamy giant who one day decides he has been called to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors. To carry him on his exploration of the ways of a warrior, he trades all his worldly possession for a fearsome ’64 Buick, a roadmonster that threatens to shake itself apart at any moment.

Buddy Red Bone (A Martinez) is the model of an Indian baby boomer; he’s gone through his idealistic activist period, and has now settled into the bitter and frustrating rut of doing the work that needs to be done for his tribe. He learns that his sister has been thrown in jail in New Mexico, and he’s got just enough money to bail her out.

So Buddy finds the newly road-worthy Philbert and fast-talks a ride south. Philbert is cheerful enough about the destination, but he’s determined to serve his own vision quest as well, and the trip becomes a series of detours to Indian holy places and landmarks on the way to Santa Fe.

It’s a shaggy, enjoyable trip. Not unlike Rain Man, it’s the story of two men traveling across country and learning from each other, and in both films one man is something of an idiot savant.

Powwow Highway has a steady stream of such asides, which eventually become not detours, but the point of the movie. Director Jonathan Wacks has a good throwaway comic touch, even though the film’s temptation to sentimentalize these characters becomes too much at times. Wacks wisely allows the film to revolve around the roly-poly Farmer; this newcomer’s Canadian accent emphasizes his gentle, dopey lilt; the lilt of his speech and the lilt of his life.

First published in the Herald, February 1989

The cast included Wes Studi (his first big screen role) and Graham Greene. Gary Farmer might have had his apotheosis in Dead Man, that uncanny American classic, serving as spirit guide to Johnny Depp’s traveler. You remember the United States Film Festival, perhaps? It’s what Sundance called itself before coming to its senses.