Starring Christopher Sweeney. Rating unavailable
A highly necessary tale is told in Neither Wolf Nor Dog. You simply have to look past amateurish direction, bad writing, and even worse acting to find it.
The central problem here is in a grindingly didactic screenplay, adapted by Kent Nerburn from his popular 1994 book of the same title. The book’s about a well-educated sculptor and part-time ethnographer who collected tales from Ojibwa reserves near his Minnesota home. This led to more contact with First Nations storytellers, including an elder at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where most of this was shot.
In this indie-film version, Christopher Sweeney plays Nerburn as if he’s a traumatized war veteran who just woke up from a coma—all growls and scowls, in the manner of a Lifetime Channel movie hero that some lucky gal gets to tame. The tamer here is enigmatic Chief Dan, played by 97-year-old Dave Bald Eagle, a D-Day veteran who died after the movie wrapped. Knowing about Kent’s earlier book, Chief Dan tasks the younger man with collecting more stories and sayings.
There’s a preamble depicting the writer’s conflict regarding the assignment; the awkward goodbye to his young family is so flatly handled by Scottish-born director Steven Lewis Simpson, you wonder if the movie will recover. Things pick up when Kent heads to Lakota territory, and the writer becomes a reluctant passenger in the back seat of an old muscle car driven by Dan’s younger pal Grover (cast standout Richard Ray Whitman). Understandably suspicious of the white man’s motives, Grover proceeds to drag him through various situations displaying the highs and lows of Indigenous life today.
These sequences are handsomely shot and edited by the director, and the faces and places encountered appear to be his true passion. The writing, not so much. The real Nerburn, a novice screenwriter, seems to have decided that you can’t have drama without people yelling at each other. So we get a lot of cranky back-and-forth between the stubbornly resistant screen Nerburn—think Carlos Castaneda with a really bad attitude—and the twinkly fellows who want him to get real. The actual author has produced roughly 16 books on this subject, so he must know how to listen, at the very least. Too bad he didn’t trust the audience to do the same.