The Doe Boy
by Jon Bastian
Finally, a Native American film that doesn’t patronize its characters by making them a bunch of “noble red men.” End result: a universal story worth seeing.
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Writer-director Randy Redroad’s first full-length feature film The Doe Boy is a touching coming-of-age story set in Oklahoma in 1984. Mixing folklore and mythology with a story that’s absolutely grounded in the bleak real-world, it just may serve to re-define what a “Native American Movie” should be. This ain’t no Dances With Wolves, and for that we should be very grateful.
Redroad tells a simple tale that is built around an autobiographical incident. When he was ten years old, the director went deer hunting with his father, who fell asleep as they waited. Lacking this adult supervision, he spotted what he thought was his first buck, fired away, and killed a female deer. This is the event that takes place over the first act of the film, and gives its hero, Hunter Kirk (James Duval, Nowhere), the nickname which is the title of the film. It’s an incident that reverberates through his life, coloring his strained relationship with his father, Hank (Kevin Anderson, A Thousand Acres), and providing the mythical framework for the rest of the story as the ironically aptly named Hunter grows up.
But this isn’t some idyllic reservation we’re living on. Hunter is a hemophiliac, one of only two Native Americans with the condition in Oklahoma. The device serves as both a metaphor for mixed-blood — Hunter’s father is white, his mother Native American — and a constant reminder that he is as fragile as the doe he killed. It’s a credit to Redroad’s subtle touch that this isn’t a film about hemophilia. In a very brilliant moment early on, he makes us understand completely what it’s like to have the condition with one simple shot of young Hunter (Andrew J. Ferchland, Buffy, The Vampire Slayer) brushing his teeth — very, very slowly and carefully so as not to make his gums bleed. Later on, Redroad plants an open can of beans on a kitchen counter during a scene between father and son, razor-sharp metal lid pried up at an angle, and it heightens the tension without ever being otherwise referred to, making the entire audience squirm at its potential danger. Compare this approach with the Hollywood version, where early on the worried parents would sit down with a doctor, who would explain everything you ever needed to know about hemophilia in great detail, adding, “Keep him away from sharp objects. And if he ever gets hit, it could be fatal!!!” The bean can would be highlighted with a shock cut to its jagged lid, soundtrack blaring danger and Hunter’s hand dancing dangerously close.
But this is not a Hollywood film. The story is small (in a good way) and everything is not neatly wrapped up with a bow at the end. One of the biggest questions is left unanswered. As well, the relationships are complicated. Father and son have their friction, but they have their tender moments as well, and the relationship between them is hardly one-note. It’s… well, it’s like real life. Credit both to the screenplay and Anderson’s performance for making what could have easily been a one-dimensional character quite human. We may not like him, but we understand him.
Another Hollywood touch that the director avoids is the whole “Noble Red Man” conceit. Yes, we do have the wise old grandfather character, Marvin Fishinghawk (wonderfully played by veteran actor Gordon Tootoosis, Lone Star), but his advice is not perfect and, in fact, when Hunter tries to follow one of his grandfather’s tales to the letter, it leads to the nicest deflation of pretense I’ve seen in a long time. Even better, out of all his grandchildren, Marvin chooses to pass on his woodworking skills to the only one who could suffer a fatal injury working with all those sharp tools. Yes, there’s a very good dramatic reason for this choice, but the subtle irony of it all makes it play on an entirely different level.
The cast is great all around. Apparently, the film was shot as quite an ensemble piece in the amazingly short time of twenty-four days. Duval is particularly impressive here, given a chance to play a bit smarter and more volatile than his usual characters in Gregg Araki films or his bit parts in big features, like Independence Day. This is his movie, and he carries it admirably. Anderson and Tootoosis are also wonderful to watch, and the latter plays his role with a sly nod for us to know that he knows he’s only pretending to be the wise old shaman that we’re all expecting. He doesn’t know everything, but never quite admits it. In addition to the three male leads, Jeri Arredondo hits all the right notes as Hunter’s caring, if slightly over-protective, mother, and has one of the subtlest moments when she conspires to help her son by pretending to be uninvolved. Jade Herrera (The Green Mile) is the girl next door with whom Hunter believably falls in love. Nathaniel Arcand (the upcoming American Outlaws) stands out in a small but well-developed role as one of Hunter’s two childhood best friends, Junior, who’s still watching out for him as they reach adulthood. (I’d like to commend the other actor, who played Cheekie, but this being a very independent film, names are hard to come by. If anyone who happens to know his identity reads this, let me know.)
All of this is excellently abetted by the dense, muted cinematography, pulled off with neither budget nor fancy toys by noted commercial director Lázló Kadar, and the marvelous score (particularly effective during the climax of the film) by Adam Dorn (aka Mocean Worker). What’s even more amazing is that he wrote the score in two weeks, collaborating with Redroad long distance. It manages to evoke Native American melodies and instruments while avoiding the stereotypical flutes and tom-toms and, in fact, evokes much folk music from around the world.
Everything works together in a deliberately paced build-up that ends with a dose of reality and a hint of magic somewhat reminiscent of the legend of Parsifal. Redroad manages to pack a lot of story into eighty-five minutes, something many slick directors can’t do in even three hour and two minutes. The end result is a human story that is very much worth seeing if you manage to track it down.
Let’s hope that some distributor feels the same way soon, and brings The Doe Boy to a multiplex near you.
Jon Bastian is a playwright, TV writer and screenwriter living in his native Los Angeles.
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