I knew I was going to like Four Sheets From the Wind within the first ten minutes of the film, when in voice-over narration in the Muscogee native language with English subtitles, the storyteller wryly noted, "Every now and then, good things happen in Oklahoma" -- before leading the audience headlong into a story that begins with a death. What follows is a lovely tale about communication, family, forgiveness, and "something resembling love," told through the story of a Native American family in small-town Oklahoma.
As a born-and-raised native Oklahoman, I really enjoyed seeing a film shot in my home state. The film takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and in Holdenville, a small town 90 or so miles south and slightly west of Tulsa, and the landscape can be truly breathtaking. As the film opens, Cufe -- pronounced "Chu-fee" with a short "u" (Cody Lightning) finds his father sitting in his easy chair. Cufe's father, our guide tells us, has always been a quiet man, but on this day he is more quiet than usual. Cufe's father has committed suicide, and he long since requested that his son bury him in the pond, without a funeral. Cufe obeys his father's last wishes before telling his mother, Cora (Jeri Arredondo) what's happened. When she finds out, she's not happy -- they have to have a proper funeral, after all, and how can they do that without a body?
Cufe and his cousin figure out a way to have the funeral without pulling his father from the pond, taking advantage of being able to claim that they are doing things in "traditional tribal ways" when questioned by any folks who might ask too many questions. Cufe's sister Miri (Tamara Podemski, who won a Special Jury Prize for acting here at Sundance for her performance in the film) makes the trip down for the funeral from Tulsa, and while she's there she tells her mom that Cufe should get out of that town, maybe come up to Tulsa and stay with her awhile. There's tension between Miri and her mom -- we don't really know why, but we don't really need to. Tension between mothers who stay and daughters who move away is not uncommon; there is love between Miri and her mother, but a wall is there too, and its invisible presence shows in every interaction between the two.
Cufe does decide to go check out Tulsa, and when he gets to his sister's rundown apartment, he meets her neighbor, Francie (Laura Bailey). Since Miri isn't home yet, Cufe and Francie end up hanging out in the bar, and for the first time in his life, Cufe finds he is able to relax and really talk to a girl -- perhaps because Francie is really listening to him. Just as Cufe is finding something that just might resemble happiness, though, Miri is spiraling out of control. This is as much Miri's tale as Cufe's -- the tale of a runaway daughter, always searching for something and never finding it, seeking comfort, or at least oblivion, in the arms of alcohol and strange men. Podemski gives a powerfully wrenching performance as Miri, telegraphing the young woman's inner turmoil with every look and movement.
The film was shot in Holdenville (the director's hometown) and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the panoramic cinematography makes the most of those wide open Oklahoma skies. Because Miri is poor, what we see of Tulsa is mainly the seedier parts of town, but even then we see it from Miri and Cufe's point-of-view; compared to where they come from, even a crappy apartment -- so long as it's in a city -- isn't that bad. Even in a cheap apartment, the interior reflects what's going on inside the character. Where Francie's apartment across the hall is prettied up with cute vintage furniture, pretty scarves, and framed photographs, MIri's has all the charm of an abandoned crack house.
Four Sheets to the Wind is about listening, and about how easy it is not to really hear the ones closest to us: A father who seldom talks, although he is filled with stories; a widow whose heart is telling her to move on; a daughter who no longer cries out for help because she thinks no one will hear. Cufe has grown up in a family of silence. When he meets Francie, for the first time in his life he is with someone who wants to hear everything about him. Francie opens Cufe up in ways he never expected, but before he can move on with her, he has to let go of everything he believes to be true about himself.