Sundance 2014: Drunktown’s Finest

A bleak but hopeful feature film portrays life around a New Mexico Navajo reservation

While “Drunktown’s Finest” was developed over six years of writing and a year of production and post, the creative expansion and the hurdles it leaped over en route to the 2014 Sundance Film Festival tell a greater story. The film itself—a stouthearted, emotional glimpse at life in Gallup, New Mexico, nicknamed Drunktown—weaves together the lives of three Navajo. Gallup happens to be the hometown of writer/director Sydney Freeland, and while she sought to write what she knows in her feature film debut, her imagination took the reigns. The work is uncompromising and Freeland tackles alcoholism, sexuality, gender and religion.


Across the film’s 93 minutes, the central characters grapple with all manners of identity. Teenage Nizhoni seeks her roots, well after being adopted by a white Christian family but just prior to leaving for college. First time actress Carmen Moore portrays transgender woman Felixxia, who dreams of becoming a model featured in the women of the tribe calendar. Rounding out the leads, Breaking Bad actor Jeremiah Bitsui plays Sickboy, a soon-to-be father wrought with violence and drug and alcohol abuse. As each character unfolds, wants and wishes collide with the reality of this reservation life. Some characters want to leave, some must leave and others need to dig deeper. “Drunktown’s Finest” is an intimate excursion into a segment of the Navajo Nation, as honest and direct as its main characters.


Freeland worked across the Sundance Directors, Screenwriters, Composers and Native Lab programs , as well as the Producer’s Summit. During the course of which, “Drunktown’s Finest” went from being an idea, to a story, and ultimately a finished product. She described to CH the invaluable contributions received throughout: “I was feeling my way through the whole process as a filmmaker, and the labs changed my perspective. I came into the writers lab with a plot-based approach, wanting to fit in the characters. There I learned to let the characters influence plot.” Her experience was much the same with the directors lab: “I went in with the mentality of storyboarding and shot-listing everything, thinking it’s about getting the shots. I had to get my shots. The lab pushes you to get the performance.”
With the film’s final iteration, Freeland explains that, “I tried writing a script that was character-based and tried to direct a film that was performance based.” She did, evident in the beautiful portrayals of her ever-blossoming leads.

With most non-studio pictures, there were many constraints, including financial backing. Sundance founder Robert Redford took an interest and helped along the way, as did a Kickstarter campaign. First time Executive Producer Dennis Mykytyn also contributed, mentioning that he was drawn to this project because “few people are aware of the reality of life, on and off the reservation, for Native Americans. ‘Drunktown’s Finest’ runs the full spectrum of emotions and interactions: Hope, family, anger, despair, community, spiritual and sexual awakenings. It’s a multi-faceted story that needed to be told.”


“There’s only one line of dialogue and one scene in the film that I’ve taken from my life; what actually happened,” Freeland explains that the rest was letting her imagination run wild. “A large part of that was going back to the res and writing. It was revisiting. It was letting these characters tell their story to me.” Through immersion, she gathered and coalesced and it was all driven by a want to tell a different sort of reservation story.

“Native Americans, in general, are represented as two types of character in film—the wise elder or the angry youth,” she notes. “Part of what I wanted to do is show how the reservation actually is, so I made the three different environments: The macho world, the religious contemporary non-native, and with Felixxa—who represents the LGBT community.” In Navajo, there exists the concept of a “third and fourth gender.” Although Freeland grew up on the reservation she wasn’t aware of this until a discussion after she moved to San Francisco. It was in the outside world that she was inspired to research deeper into her own culture. Through this curiosity, a want to convey characters beyond stereotypes and a desire to hone her craft as a filmmaker, Freeland has concocted a rather potent cinematic piece.

Images courtesy of Drunktown’s Finest