The sign above the Conoco gas station on the highway clearly says this: WELCOME TO CENTRAL AMERICA.
Writer-director Morrisa Maltz’s poignant debut feature, “The Unknown Country,” which will premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago through August 30, is about a journey that a woman named Tana maps out on her way from Minnesota. taking. South Dakota. There, in and around the sanctuary where her people live or used to live, Tana reconnects with various Oglala Lakota cousins and other relatives over the years.
Tana is invited to a cousin’s wedding, and much of the film focuses on this milestone, before and after, as experienced by a woman who has spent most of her life away. Tana eventually heads south from there to Big Bend National Park; here she spent some time with her deceased grandmother (Tana carries a small black and white photo with the tag “Texas 1940”), but no one seems to know much about her. IT. This photo becomes Tana’s compass to unknown destinations. And with Lily Gladstone portraying her, Maltz’s small but beautiful narrative accumulates a wealth of honest, unforced emotion and thought.
Story-praising Gladstone (along with three others) has already made a big impact with a separate, big-budget movie set to hit theaters in October: Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which hit the Cannes Film Festival earlier this month. year. She is also a great actress and one of the faces born for the camera in Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women”; it’s not just because it’s acting, it’s a way of being. Tana is a reactive element in “The Unknown Land”; He’s often seen talking wordlessly about his caring responsibilities with his grandmother, or seen drinking a cup of coffee at a roadside restaurant. But when he speaks quietly, from the heart, we listen.
One of the big luck in Maltz’s post-production meeting is that all the voices we heard besides Tana were included. Maltz filmed “Unknown Country” between 2017 and 2020 and used non-actors to animate his variations. In the voiceover, we hear their stories of growing up and working as hosts or motel owners in South Dakota. The mix of professional and non-professional artists resembles Chloe Zhao’s approach. “Rider” And “Land of the Nomads” Movies that are as intriguing and dedicated to areas of America that are normally off-screen.
There is something dreamy and poetic about the visual texture of Andrew Hajek’s often brilliantly photographed film “Unknown Country.” The Waste Lands, the serpentine highways, the undulating sunsets come forward and pose, but unconsciously. We understand a lot about Tana’s life and situation from the little details; for example, how a vaguely or overtly predatory pair of male eyes becomes nervous when they gaze at him along its course. Where Tana went is both stated and unspecified. “I’m flying,” Tana says when asked what her plans include. But inside, he makes a parallel series of discoveries, like the movie dreams we watch.
Hats off to Chicago’s own Music Box Films company for taking it out for distribution. I can’t wait to see what Maltz does next.
“Unknown Country” — 3.5 stars (out of 4)
No MPA rating (smoking)
Running time: 1:26
How to watch: Through August 30, Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St; more information at siskelfilmcenter.org
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.