The toughest review to write is one for a film like Georgina Lightning's "Older Than America" a film written, directed and starring Lightning based on some truly horrific, real to life events. The Native American film genre is often underrepresented and one would hope "Older Than America" would be a standout, featuring two well-known Native actors, Adam Beach and Wes Studi, however, while an incredibly competently made film that does manage to tell the story it set out to, it refuses to pave any new ground, instead settling for quiet mediocrity.
Set on a Native American reservation, the film mixes the true story of the US's forced boarding of Native American children, subjecting them to a wide variety of abuses, along with the story of Rain (Lightning), a woman haunted by visions that led to her own mother's forced institutionalization. The viewer is brought into the reservation life through the eyes of a US Geologist, Luke, played by a pre-fame Bradley Cooper. Cooper is paired up with Rain's fiancé, John (Beach) and it's not long before some hints of some supernatural events pop up.
The film plays with these creepy moments to build tension, before shifting the focus on the obviously sinister figure, pulling all the strings, Rev. Gunderson (Chris Mulkey). Added into the mix is subplot of a man running for political office on the reservation and the relationship between Rain and John, which is strained due to both Rain's own inner demons, family issues, and John's acceptance into the FBI, which forces Rain to choose between her home (and mother) and the man she loves. Lightning never fully develops these issues as much as one would like, instead relying on the covered-up abuses and connection to Rain's mother to keep the pace steady.
Sadly, the approach to the entire mystery feels more like an episode of a police procedural with enough big budget flair to make it stand out. Even forgiving the sensible, workmanlike script, the effort on the part of the cast feels incredibly lazy, with Beach, normally a very dependable leading man phoning it in, while Cooper is so well known for being the suave ladies man, his opposite turn here is a bit off-putting. Studi is relegated to a smaller supporting role, while Mulkey straddles the line between creepy and hammy, undermining the serious tone of the film. Only Lightning herself gives a convincing performance mixing common troubles with visions steeped in Native tradition. She puts herself through the gamut and largely succeeds in crafting a satisfying character arc.
"Older Than America" raises some important issues and themes that are largely unknown or ignored (whether intentionally or unintentional, is a big concern) and Lightning's handling of the dual meaning of "kill the Indian, save the Man" is chilling and powerful. Had the film not opted for such a pedestrian approach to bringing this issue to light, "Older Than America" would or at least should have been a must-see film. At the end of the day, it's merely an adequate endeavor that is worth watching once but aside from important themes, will be forgotten soon after.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer sports an average level of detail while faithfully capturing the somewhat cold color palette. Edge enhancement and noise are essentially non-existent, while contrast is wholly appropriate and balanced.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is dialogue heavy, with some decent use of the surrounds during the film's creepier moments. The audio is clear and distortion free, with a good deal of life when necessary. Spanish subtitles and English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included.
The lone extra is the film's trailer.
A well-made, adequate drama based on actual events, "Older Than America" breaks little new ground aside from the issues Lightning arguably set out to bring forward to the public eye. The DVD features a technically solid presentation and I don't have trouble recommending one viewing, just don't expect to be entirely wowed by the (mostly) sleepy acting. Rent It.