Drunktown’s Finest is about identity in its many forms: race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and nationality, to name a few. What ties its three disparate main protagonists is their Navajo heritage. Director Sydney Freeland’s first film is an exploration of Navajo youth struggling in contemporary America, and what makes this a compelling film is its ability to navigate between the specificity of Navajo culture and the more general struggles that youth face in the United States.
The film takes place in and around a reservation near the fictional town of Dry Lake, New Mexico. College-bound Nizhoni (MorningStar Angeline) is afraid to go into its borders. Adopted by a white couple after her parents were killed in a car crash when she was seven, Nizhoni has struggled to reconcile her strict Christian upbringing with the knowledge of her Navajo heritage. Though she was mostly raised in Michigan, she spends summers near the reservation. This particular summer is her last before starting school, and, spurred on by prophetic dreams, she wants to discover more about her family. By volunteering near the reservation, Nizhoni comes face-to-face with her history.
Sick Boy (Jeremiah Bitsui from Breaking Bad) is a young Navajo man preparing for military deployment, a means of escape from the reservation. His army move is also meant to avoid an inevitable life of poverty, local crimes, and drug use with his local friends, as well as provide for his family; he’s about to become a father. After drunkenly hitting a cop just a few days before he’s set to leave, Sick Boy struggles to avoid any more run-ins with law enforcement as his deployment approaches, despite the wayward and illegal plans of his friends.
Sick Boy’s travels around the area lead him to a disastrous hook-up with Felixia (Carmen Moore). A transgender woman living with her grandparents, Felixia works as an online prostitute and dreams of a modeling career. She enters and becomes a finalist in a Navajo calendar model contest, though she doesn’t reveal to the organizers her gender in order to compete. Meanwhile, her accepting grandparents are steeped in Navajo culture, providing education to local youth, including Sick Boy’s younger sister. They also have a connection to Nizhoni.
These three stories weave in and out of each other in alarming and surprising ways. Freeland uses traditional Navajo concepts and 21-century devices like social media to demonstrate how these three straddle two seemingly different worlds. While some of the acting leaves a lot to be desired and intriguing plot points (including Nizhoni’s dreams) get passed over, the story lines are genuinely captivating. They defy the typical coming-of-age tale by shifting focus between struggles with personal identity and larger cultural ties.
Drunktown’s Finest meaningfully culminates in Sick Boy’s younger sister’s Navajo puberty ceremony. This suggests that neither tradition nor modern life is overtaken by the other, but rather they exist together and that none of these characters needs to choose between the two.