Barking Water (2009): Road Movie from Sterlin Harjo

By Dante A. Ciampaglia

Sundance Film Fest–New Directors/New Films 2009--Many of the tropes of the road movie are evident in “Barking Water,” director Sterlin Harjo’s second feature. There’s the beat-up old car, the travelers living off the kindness of friends and strangers, the alienation, and the claustrophobia of being stuck in a car with the same person for hundreds of miles, contrasted with the wide-open natural beauty of the land all around the road and travelers.  However, where “Barking Water” diverges a bit from a simplistic genre classification of a road movie is in the characters’ journey.


On-again-off-again lovers Frankie (Richard Ray Whitman) and Irene (Casey Camp-Horinek) embark on a metaphysical journey to Frankie’s physical (and spiritual) home in Barking Water, Oklahoma, as he begins succumbing to terminal disease. The narrative begins with Irene busting Frankie out of the hospital and setting out in a Volvo, which has seen better days. She doesn’t want to see Frankie waste away in the throes of machines, and the road provides her with an escape.


But this journey isn’t simply about not wanting someone to die in a hospital. Rather, Frankie and Irene are Native Americans and have a strong sense of pride in where, how, and with whom they spend the remainder of their days. Thus, rather than traveling from the hospital, located in one part of Oklahoma, straight to Barking Water, a few hundred miles away, Irene takes Frankie to see family, friends, and places that are special to him, reaching toward the ultimate goal of visiting his estranged daughter and granddaughter before he dies.


Harjo, a Native American himself, handles Frankie and Irene’s journey, and their relationship, soulfully. There is no question that they are racing against time, and that every minute spent is one less minute Frankie has to live. But Harjo doesn’t use that as an excuse to present a rose-colored version of their relationship or history. Frankie and Irene enjoy the company of each other, but there are as many tough moments as there are sweet ones, and often they coexist.


One moment that captures this beautifully comes near the middle of the film. Frankie and Irene pick up a couple of college kids whose car has broken down. One, an overly chatty girl (Laura Spencer), asks how long Frankie and Irene have been married. Frankie makes up a number, as they’re not married. The girl then asks if they have any kids. Frankie says he does. Girl asks why they don’t have any kids together. Irene, barely raising her voice, launches into a confession: They aren’t married. And they have no kids because Frankie kept leaving her. And you know what? The last time he walked out she told her brothers he was a drunk and abusive. They beat him up for it, even though she made it up. And you know what? He never told them the truth.


In the hands of a lesser director and lesser actors this scene would play as just a cleansing of the soul. But Harjo weaves so much conflicting emotion into it, and Whitman and Camp-Horinek are so adept at acting with their eyes and slight changes in facial expressions, that it plays like a documentary. These are people that have been together for decades, whose lives are inextricably linked, and who know that the moments of mistrust, lies, and hate are fleeting, because ultimately it’s the love that lasts. If soul mates exist, they are Frankie and Irene.


For 85 minutes, “Barking Water” builds its outward, narrative journey on these inward, emotional ones that explore the depths of connection to people, to places, and to culture. That outer journey takes place on highways, and in that way the film belongs in the road  movie, but the soulful inner journey allows the film to transcend the limitations of the genre.


“Barking Water” debuted at the 2009 Sundance Film Fest, and recently played as part of the New Directors/New Film series in New York. But as of now Harjo doesn’t have distribution for the film. Let’s hope that changes. The landscape of American independent film needs someone like Sterlin Harjo who craft films as a quiet, beautiful, complex, and dynamic as “Barking Water.”




Richard Ray Whitman (Frankie)

Casey Camp-Horinek (Irene)



Indion Entertainment Presents With Indion Production and Dolphin Bay Films

Director: Sterlin Harjo

Screenplay: Sterlin Harjo

Cinematography: Frederick Schroeder


Running time: 85 minutes