Somewhere in the dry wasteland that is Oklahoma, two middle-aged American Indians take a road trip. Irene and Frankie have been in an on-again-off-again relationship for 40 years, and now Frankie is dying. Making it very clear that they are not together, Irene helps Frankie reconnect with his past by driving him from friend to friend, the ultimate destination being a reunion with his estranged daughter.
Amidst seemingly thousands of driving montages, “Barking Water” has potential. It’s the kind of movie you cheer for, despite its flaws. Because at the heart of the tale is the overwhelming power of love to redeem. I know that sounds totally corny, and it’s not the kind of thing I would normally write as a positive, but in such a small budget, sincere little film such sentiments seem much more valid. Shot with a tiny crew and a cast that mostly consisted of non-actors, it appears that director Sterlin Harjo did his very best to enlighten.
Using non-actors for “Barking Water” is what contributes most to the independent feel of the film. I believe the choice is largely positive. After all, a seasoned filmmaker like Gus Van Sant uses non-actors all the time to achieve this raw affect. There is something about emotions displayed by someone who is not Oscar-bound that I really appreciate. And I don’t think a, say, Richard Gere could pull off the role of a dying old guy quite like Richard Ray Whitman can. Well, plus Gere isn’t a Native American…
That said, there are some problems with characterizations that I found distracting. Take, for example, the young’uns that Irene and Frankie hit up for a free meal. Adorning gold chains and huge pants, and so stereotypical as to use the phrase “butt hurt,” these boys – and other caricatures like them – bring the film down to a cheap comedy level.
Likewise, the aforementioned driving sequences. Literally clocking in at 978 (million), these montages (set to beautiful but overused music by artists like Samantha Crain, Paleface, and The Everybody Fields) are such a copout way to fill 30 minutes of an 85 minute film. But what is independent cinema without at least one driving montage?
Don’t get me wrong. I liked “Barking Water” – for what it’s worth – I just wish some of the clearly precious resources for the film could have been used on just a little fine-tuning.