Little Chief (Sundance)

By Erica Tremblay | Drama
A young teacher cares for a troubled boy on a Native American reservation.

Sharon, a young teacher at a school on a Native American reservation, is dedicated to her job and her students in the most deprived of circumstances, even snagging toilet paper from other businesses’ restrooms for the school.

But though she cares for her students and school, the work is emotionally draining. But Sharon must dig deep when the most isolated of her students, Bear, needs her the most.

Written and directed by Native American filmmaker Erica Tremblay, this short drama — which was a selection at Sundance in 2020 — is a thoughtful, resonant portrait of a relationship between a teacher and student. Offering a snapshot of modern Native American life, it gently captures its strained economic poverty, but it’s also a quietly moving story of what it truly means to make a difference in a young person’s life.

“Making a difference” is a theme that’s often the stuff of tidy, didactic “Movie of the Week” stories. But the visuals have the feel of an observational documentary and pay intimate, non-judgmental attention to the characters and their world. Pared-down images and an austere naturalism are deployed with great thought and intelligence to put us in the headspace of its strained, weary teacher.

The storytelling and writing are equally as spare, with brief, laconic dialogue and close attention paid to gestures and silence. Sharon’s detachment and exhaustion with her students are presented with a certain matter-of-fact understanding, and the story’s small, ordinary moments are rich with finely observed details.

In such a spare, almost austere film, performances become an important point of connection for an audience, even as they exist in such a quiet artistic approach. Actor Lily Gladstone plays Sharon with extraordinary honesty and restraint, and isn’t afraid to show how embattled and almost rote-like someone can feel in the tiring, draining everyday battles of a teacher trying to do a thankless job with very little support or resources. But when her most challenged student hits a breaking point, she gets a reminder of just how important she is to her students.

Building off the director’s experiences of growing up in Oklahoma with her Native schoolteacher mother, “Little Chief” is an exploration of modern Native American life. It’s also a tribute to the resilience of teachers, who do a job many say is important, but are rarely provided with resources, power or even appreciation.

Their intrepid commitment in the face of sometimes overwhelming odds is captured here with an unsentimental, unvarnished story of great subtlety and beauty — one that refuses cheap and easy heroism, instead showing what it means to show up, day after day, in the face of grim realities.

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