Criterion Prediction #208: Powwow Highway, by Alexander Miller
Title: Powwow Highway
Director: Jonathan Wacks
Cast: Gary Farmer, A Martinez, Joannelle Romero, Amanda Wyss
Synopsis: Buddy Red Bow, a fiery activist struggling to preserve his heritage and his nation’s Cheyenne reservation against the interests of crooked developers and politicians, is further incensed when his sister is arrested on a trumped up, shifty possession charge. Meanwhile, his sweetly naive friend Philbert, who’s enamored with tribal lore and stories, gets a new “pony,” a beat up ’64 Buick. Together, this duo embark on a road trip from Montana to Sante Fe to bail out Buddy’s sister.
Critique: After watching Powwow Highway, I thought, “If Wim Wenders made a western, it would probably look like this.” The narrative is indeed in the western mold–a present day western–this time where we root for the Cheyenne and the villains are developers, strip miners and cops. In genre terms, the revised elements are in plain sight, the frontier is the open road, the horse (or pony) is a ragtag ’64 Buick and the code of the west is replaced by indigenous folklore and Cheyenne spiritualism. They’re outlaws, modern outlaws, victims of prejudice and ecological decay and, in the best tradition of the genre, Buddy and Philbert are the types we can root for. The laws they’ve broken are in the preservation of their culture and, like any great western, the laws made by man have a multitude of grey areas and caveats but our protagonists are valiant in their purpose. The stakes and narrative beats of Powwow Highway are dialed into a vibrant tale where politics, whether they be tribal, social, ecological or municipal, play into a road movie/western story that touches on an ongoing issue with the degradation of this country’s native populace. While the downfall of so many films that take on prescient issues are marred with an air of haughty self importance, Jonathan Wacks’ direction (paired with David Seals and Janet Haney’s script) dolls out charming moments of subtle warmth and humor naturally emitting from the casually potent performances. A Martinez plays Buddy with a tense physicality, layered and energetic. His layered characterization is memorable to say the least. For most, Gary Farmer will steal the screen. As a relative newcomer here, his soulful portrayal of Philbert is relentlessly endearing. In moments when he recounts a folksy anecdote, his face lights up with indelible authenticity, his speech and body language radiate with native authenticity and it’s no wonder he’s the endeared persona we all know and love.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: First off, there’s a matter of representation; the amount of American films about indigenous nations are few and far between. Beside the smaller independent productions that unfortunately don’t receive much attention (The Business of Fancydancing, Dreamkeeper), movies like Smoke Signals or in this case Powwow Highway linger in distribution limbo. However, seeing as Powwow Highway is featured on Criterion’s streaming channel, it stands to reason we might see it get a spine number. Furthermore, it’s one of the movies produced by George Harrison’s Hand Made Pictures, which is no stranger to The Criterion Collection. Despite many of them being out of print, The Long Good Friday, Withnail and I, The Life of Brian and Mona Lisa, titles like Time Bandits are still in circulation. If Powwow Highway comes to pass, perhaps some of these OOP Handmade Pictures will receive an upgrade as well?