Four Sheets to the Wind (2007): Harjo’s Directing Debut, Native American Tale

Sundance Film Fest 2007–(World Premiere Dramatic Competition)–Sterlin Harjo makes a directorial debut with “Four Sheets to the Wind,” an uplifting feature about healing and the ties that bind. His feature is too sentimental and too broad to impress film critics, but should appeal to audiences, particularly those interested in Native American cinema.

Over the years, we have come to rely on the Sundance for providing a regular, legit arena for filmmakers of this disenfranchised minority, still vastly underrepresented even in indie cinema.

This year, Harjo’s “Four Sheets” fills the same spot occupied in the past by such popular Native American films as “Pow-Wow Highway” and “Smoke Signals.” Unfortunately, neither filmmaker of the above films has enjoyed a sustained career, and it’s interesting to speculate on the reasons for this sad trend. This is particularly so in the case of Chris Eyre, whose “Smoke Signals” won the Sundance Audience Award back in 1998 and enjoyed a successful run when released by the old Miramax.

The lighthearted story, written by helmer Harjo, is rather simple if emotionally effective, drawing on indigenous mores of his culture. Cufe Smallhill’s father, a quiet man with not much to say, is found dead one day with a bottle of pills next to him. Fulfilling a promise he had made to his dad, youngster Cufe (Cody Lightning) buries the body at the bottom of the family pond.

This modest act proves disappointing to community members who somehow expected a bigger, more festive funeral. As a result, and under communal pressures, Cufe, his cousin, and his mother decide to fake a ceremony.

Yarn gets a needed thematic jolt when, in the midst of mourning, Cufe realizes that he has to get off the Indian reservation and find a more fulfilling life. Opportunity knocks when his sister Miri (Tamara Podemski) comes from Tulsa for the funeral and extends a warm invitation to her brother to visit her in the big city, an act that opens a door for Cufe into a whole new world.

The Tulsa chapters prove inspirational as well eye-opening. Cufe observes with mixed feelings Miri’s work at a menial job, and more significantly, her loneliness and hard drinking that motivate her to socialize with rednecks.
Shrewdly, Harjo arranges a romance for his protagonist with an adventurous Caucasian named Francie (Laura Bailey), thus exploring the intricate dimensions of an interracial liaison. Their scenes together, in which each learns to appreciate the other member’s distinctive values, further positioning the feature as a potential date movie.

As director, Harjo shows a whimsical touch, which is much needed for a text that’s too slender and basically plotless. This is no problem here, since the central triangle of characters is captivating. Like “Smoke Signals,” “Four Sheets to the Wind” is accompanied by a voice-over; here by Cufe’s dead father rather, laced with playful humor and wisdom that enriches the tale.

Cody Lightning and Tamara Podemski render charming performances in roles that seem easier to play than they actually are (This is the second film in Sundance this year, after Tamara Jenkins’ “The Savages,” that centers on the rare sight of siblings). In the course of the tale, all three central figures discover new traits they failed to realize they possessed, such as Cufe’s (re) discovery of strong will and moral strength. Podemski’s performance as his hard-drinking sister shows the woman’s fears and loneliness, while Bailey is captivating as Cufe’s love interest.

The film benefits from the rich Oklahoma atmosphere with its rural landscapes and country rhythms. Harjo has infused his feature with a sense of humor and evocative score by Jeff Johnston, who blends different tunes, both folkloristic and more urban, to convey the shifting locales.


Running time: 90 minutes

Screenwriter-director: Sterlin Harjo
Producers: Chad Burris, Ted Kroeber
Executive producer: Cheyenne Fletcher
Director of photography: Frederick Schroeder
Production designer: Carla Marie Rugg
Music: Jeff Johnston


Cufe Smallhill: Cody Lightning
Cora Smallhill: Jeri Arredondo
Miri Smallhill: Tamara Podemski
Francie: Laura Bailey
Frankie Smallhill: Richard Ray Whitman
David: Christian Kane
Sonny: Mike Randleman