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Short Film Review: Little Chief

Ahead of its premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Malu Rocha reviews Indigenous filmmaker Erica Tremblay’s short about resilience and everyday struggles.

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Image Credit: Marshall Stief

Little Chief tells the story of an exhausted yet resilient schoolteacher, Sharon, as she faces the everyday struggles of dealing with her students, some of which are fighting battles of their own. Although the premise of centring a story around a struggling teacher is not necessarily ground-breaking, Little Chief manages to explore this in refreshing ways as Sharon’s lack of empathy towards her students ironically makes us sympathise with her even more. From the very beginning we can see that she is a three-dimensional character through her detached yet assertive actions and, of course, her ‘warriors respect women’ tote bag.

Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of this short film is how it first presents its protagonist within the context of the story and boy, am I a sucker for a good character introduction. The first time we see Sharon she sneaks into a fancy hotel to steal a couple of soaps and sweets, and I found myself nodding along in approval of this brilliantly scripted short scene. Featuring no dialogue, a few tense stares and a very brisk walk away from the ‘crime scene’, introductions like these immediately draw the audience into the complex nature of a character, and that is brilliant storytelling if you ask me.

Director Erica Tremblay explains that because she comes from a documentary background, casting the right actor for the role was the most difficult part of the process for her during pre-production. When Lily Gladstone (Certain Women, Billions) accepted the lead role she squealed with joy, and with good reason. Lily’s performance is nothing short of extraordinary. From the way she addresses her students to the way she carelessly adds an exclamation point after writing ‘good morning’ on the classroom board, seeing an actor convey an array of feelings while playing such a seemingly emotionless character is very gripping.

Although we as an audience feel privileged to have been given an insight into Sharon’s life, this connection could have been further developed if the protagonist had a more definitive and bold character arc. As the film draws to a close, the sensation the audience is left with is that of sameness and stillness because Sharon essentially doesn’t undergo any dramatic changes. Unfortunately, the film’s final scene doesn’t do itself any favours either. The story culminates in a (jogging) chase sequence that comes across as somewhat gimmicky and surreal. Albeit beautifully shot, it felt misplaced and melodramatic.

Throughout the film, it’s clear that every action played out by the characters seems to have a specific purpose in the story (apart from the four cigarettes Sharon lights in the span of ten minutes) and to have been thoroughly choreographed, which is always a bonus. The film is shot against the bleak landscape of a rural reservation in Oklahoma, which inevitably lends itself to beautifully composed shots and unique settings. However, because Little Chief is quite a simplistic and minimalist film overall, I was expecting the cinematography to be used as a tool to evoke more of an emotional response from the audience. Instead, more often than not it lacked personality and felt quite standard.

This film was produced thought the Sundance Institute Native Filmmakers Lab last year and consequently, one of its biggest marketing points is the fact that it portrays modern Indigenous culture through an unfiltered and authentic lens. Erica Tremblay has expressed that she feels like “there is a real lack of understanding about modern Native America” because “the standard tropes of Indigenous people on screen are relentless and violent.”

As a filmmaker, she feels a responsibility to try and push against that narrative. Her short film “offers a simple exploration of one reality set against the complicated constructs in which it exists.” Erica has also expressed that she feels inspired by the people in her community and that Little Chief is a love letter to her mother who has worked through her own trauma to heal others in her community.

Little Chief will hold its global premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival as part of their Shorts Selection and it will be screened several times during the course of the festival before Patricia Vidal Delgado’s feature film La Leyenda Negra. Director Erica Tremblay and other members of the crew will be attending each screening.

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