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Lily Gladstone in Sweet Portrait of Girlhood

Lily Gladstone in Sweet Portrait of Girlhood

Lily Gladstone in Sweet Portrait of Girlhood

Morrisa Maltz renders the realities of girlhood with compelling tenderness in her sophomore narrative effort Jazzy. The film, which takes place in the same cinematic universe as the director’s critically acclaimed debut feature The Unknown Country, follows six years in the life of its protagonist as she navigates friendship, romantic crushes and the small freedoms of growing up. Jazzy’s story is based on that of Maltz’s goddaughter, Jasmine Bearkiller Shangreaux, with whom the director worked closely on this delicate narrative. 

Premiering at Tribeca, Jazzy trails its titular character from age 6 through 12. The film combines the experimental narrative and temporal sweep of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood with the considerate eye of films like Maimouna Doucouré’s Cuties and Minhal Baig’s We Grown Now. Maltz takes the problems of her protagonist seriously, and so much of what makes Jazzy engrossing is how the director portrays daily events with a stirring profundity. Collaborating again with The Unknown Country cinematographer Andrew Hajek, Maltz plays with close-ups and other snug camera angles to make viewers co-conspirators in Jazzy’s adventures. There’s an endearing clumsiness to the film, too, reflecting the awkward pauses and missteps of real life. 

Jazzy

The Bottom Line

A poignant chronicle of girlhood.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (U.S. Narrative Competition)
Cast: Jasmine Bearkiller Shangreaux, Syriah Foohead Means, Richard Ray Whitman, Raymond Lee, Lily Gladstone
Director: Morrisa Maltz
Screenwriters: Morrisa Maltz, Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, Vanara Taing, Andrew Hajek

1 hour 26 minutes

The film opens with Jazzy’s seventh birthday, a scene in which the young girl blows out the candles and sends her wishes into the universe. A hopeful thread is introduced in that moment, a reminder that Jazzy’s life is buoyed by promises of the future. Later, when Maltz, working with editors Vanara Taing and Laura Colwell, cuts back to Jazzy’s birthday in first grade, we remember that forward-looking excitement.

The principle narrative of Jazzy revolves around our protagonist (Shangreaux) and her best friend Syriah (Syriah Fool Head Means), another Lakota girl negotiating the unknown terrain of childhood in South Dakota. The pair’s relationship bursts with the mutual adoration of young friendships. Maltz offers scenes of Jazzy and Syriah playing silly games on the school bus, video chatting and asking each other about their favorite trees and animals. Lasting bonds depend on the answers to questions that might, to outsiders, seem frivolous. 

Maltz intuits how easy it can be to brush off the drama of childhood; Jazzy functions as a refutation of that dismissal. She treats the relationship between Jazzy and Syriah as serious — sacred even. In one scene, the pair sit on a trampoline, lit by the rays of a receding sun. “When do you think we’ll know when we’re grown up?” Jazzy asks her friend, her voice weighted with surprising melancholy. “I don’t know,” Syriah says in response. “What do you think?” Jazzy doesn’t know either. Both girls consider that for a minute before coming up with reasons not to grow up. Having to go to work tops the list.

Here are two kids who rely on each other for life’s dilemmas — small and big. Scenes like these help us more keenly feel the heartbreak of the coming rupture. One day Jazzy and Syriah are fortifying their bond; the next it’s over. 

It happens seemingly without warning. Jazzy calls to Syriah on the bus one day and the girl, naturally more stoic, doesn’t reply. It turns out that Syriah’s family is moving from the neighborhood to the reservation, a transition that will separate her from her closest friend. Like Malik in Baig’s poignant drama We Grown Now, Syriah avoids reality instead of confronting it. She distances herself from Jazzy and, in a series of sharp vignettes, Maltz shows the emotional fallout.

Is this what growing up feels like? That’s another question Maltz takes seriously. She portrays Jazzy’s life in the wake of Syriah’s departure gently, trying to understand the impact. Jazzy has good days and bad days, filled with conversations on the school bus and brushes with juvenile romance. Syriah, meanwhile, meets distant relatives and tries to improve her Lakota. 

The sudden death of a community member doubles as an occasion for the girls to meet again. Jazzy and her family drive to the reservation where she reconnects with her aunt Tana (Lily Gladstone). The funeral nudges another theme of Jazzy, bringing it to the foreground. At the start of the film, Jazzy and Syriah practice different words in Lakota, trying to match phrases to meaning. When Syriah moves to the reservation, an elder asks her about her proficiency and assures her that she will get better. Through these moment — and the funeral — Maltz deftly tackles the idea of cultural preservation. Jazzy is not just about girlhood, but also about inheritance. It is about coming of age into one’s own self and figuring out how it fits within tradition. How to forge a future that takes stock of the past.

So it’s meaningful when Jazzy and Syriah reunite on a grassy expanse facing distant peaks. As they shout “I missed you” into the ether, their reverberating voices sound like their future selves, likely still friends, yelling back. 

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Full credits

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (U.S. Narrative Competition)
Production company: Duplass Productions, Fit Via Vi Film Productions, Film Arcade
Cast: Jasmine Bearkiller Shangreaux, Syriah Foohead Means, Richard Ray Whitman, Raymond Lee, and Lily Gladstone
Director: Morrisa Maltz
Screenwriters: Morrisa Maltz, Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, Vanara Taing, Andrew Hajek
Producers: Morrisa Maltz, Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, Miranda Bailey, Natalie Whalen, Elliott Whitton, John Way, Vanara Taing, Tommy Heitkamp
Executive producers: Lily Gladstone, Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass , Mel Eslyn, Jason Beck , Bill Way
Cinematographer: Andrew Hajek
Editors: Vanara Taing, Laura Colwell
Music: Alexis Marsh
Sales: UTA

1 hour 26 minutes

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