While story fundamentals are there and performances sharp, the film is curiously wan. Rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.
Though it often resembles an innocuous Hallmark movie, the biographical drama “Te Ata” proves an illuminating, sometimes moving intersection of history, family conflict and the sort of rising, individual destiny that can nudge a nation along in its progress.
A big reason is the film’s remarkable subject: the 20th-century Chickasaw storyteller Mary Thompson Fisher, aka Te Ata (Maori for “Bearer of the Morning,” a childhood nickname given to her by a relative), an inspiring figure.
An informal ambassador of Native American cultural heritage to white America, Te Ata gave compelling performances around the U.S. involving narratives, singing, dancing and drumming. She left audiences spellbound, eventually entertaining presidents and European royalty.
Movie Review ★★½
‘Te Ata,’ with Q’orianka Kilcher, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, Mackenzie Astin, Brigid Brannagh, Cindy Pickett. Directed by Nathan Frankowski, from a screenplay by Jeannie Barbour and Esther Luttrell. 105 minutes. Rated PG for some thematic elements including a brief violent image. Opens Oct. 6 at the Varsity.
Director Nathan Frankowski’s “Te Ata” concerns Mary’s formative years, from strong-willed schoolgirl in 1906 to Franklin Roosevelt-era celebrity. Growing up on an Oklahoma reservation, young Mary is the daughter of a white mother (Brigid Brannagh) and Chickasaw father (Gil Birmingham) at a time the federal government has forbidden Native American cultural practices.
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During a stark moment, Mary (Q’orianka Kilcher) encounters an act of racial violence, reinforcing her father’s resolve that she remain safe at home forever. Instead she attends college, where a theater instructor (Cindy Pickett) encourages her to embrace her roots and become Te Ata, a teller of time-honored Chickasaw stories.
As Te Ata’s worldliness grows, Frankowski keeps the film grounded in Mary’s relationship with her parents, especially her father’s slow, grudging acceptance of her calling. The director draws pronounced performances from an appealing cast including Graham Greene as a Chickasaw governor and Mackenzie Astin as Mary’s suitor, a scientist. Kilcher indeed enchants whenever she is on stage.
At times Frankowski’s shots evoke pastoral splendor and the resilience of home. Yet perhaps in an effort to tell a PG story about an all-ages storyteller, “Te Ata” lacks vitality, pulling its punches and sometimes resorting to a cheesy shorthand. (A scene featuring Greene’s reservation leader and a racist senator is especially cheap.)
Despite that, “Te Ata” lingers in the memory as a tale of an artist’s promise — and fulfillment.