Cinequest Review: Non Western (2021)

Directed by: Laura Plancarte. Starring: Thaddeus Red Bird, Nanci Red Bird. Runtime: 1h 34 min.

In an honest portrayal of a relationship of cultural differences, Non Western follows Montana couple Thaddeus Red Bird and Nanci Red Bird as they prepare for their upcoming wedding. The tricky thing is what type of wedding it will be, as Thaddeus is of the Northern Cheyenne Native American tribe, and Nanci is not Native (though she was adopted into the Lakota tribe as a kid).

This is the core of the film as we explore these cultural differences, as they talk about it throughout the film. These struggles are mostly the different opinions on gender norms and identity. The role of the woman is seen in a specific way by the Northern Cheyenne, as Thad’s mother puts it, “Women are always waiting on men because that’s a woman’s role.” Nanci wants to be a “modern” woman but that’s frowned upon, as when she’s at home, she’s to be a wife and a mother, not a career woman.

Nanci’s side of things culturally is interesting, especially as she talks about being from a Christian family but being “adopted” into the Lakota tribe as a teen and feeling like she was caught between two worlds and not belonging anywhere. Moments like these are when Non Western is at its most effective. I very much enjoyed the raw honesty of what these people have been through – from Thaddeus, to Nanci, to Thaddeus’ mother, and even Nanci’s son, Walker.

Walker has one of the most interesting lines in the film: “I don’t see myself as being Native American, I just see myself as being Walker.” He’s a character who doesn’t care as passionately for the traditional beliefs or norms of Northern Cheyenne traditions, and that’s how some of his generation sees it. His point-of-view helps paint a bigger picture and I wish we would have gotten more of his voice in this film.

This is because it’s not always clear why some things are so culturally significant. Laura Plancarte’s writing and direction don’t fail the film, though certain issues and significance get lost because they lack context in editing. For instance, as Nanci and Thaddeus argue offscreen, Thad says, “There are certain things we don’t do so think about it before taking it one step further and making it personal.”

Thaddeus Red Bird, Nanci Red Bird and friends at a gathering in Non Western. (Photo courtesy of Cinequest.)

They discuss the dominance of man and woman immediately after their son Tristan drops a bowl and Nanci makes him clean it up. It seems Thaddeus is frustrated because a man shouldn’t have to clean that, but they also don’t specifically say what they’re arguing about so that’s why context would be helpful. If that is what they’re arguing about; it’s something that seems so mundane to us but is culturally significant to Thaddeus. I’m not sure if I always understood why, but it just is.

I surely struggled at times comprehending this aspect, but Non Western is about keeping an open mind and empathizing with the people in this documentary. I appreciated everything that was put into this, especially as it shows who Thaddeus is as a person. Laura Plancarte’s doc is as much an examination of a couple adjusting to cultural differences as it is a character study of Thaddeus, a war veteran with trauma, as well as identity issues from his youth.

This trauma is clear in scenes where Thaddeus is simply sitting down. The camera stays on him as he smiles, then loses the smile and withdraws into his own world. It’s like poetry as we stay with him for several beats as he reflects silently. In another scene, Thaddeus tells us about a girl with black eyes that he sees, something straight out of a ghost story. He says this is in voice-over and it’s set to images of Montana’s mountains. It’s gorgeous and haunting, even without the specific context of why it haunts him.

Thaddeus says himself he is still learning how to portray his emotions again after being forced to hold them down for so long. That’s why the scenes he shares with his friend Russell are my favourite scenes in the film. He simply smiles and laughs and enjoys himself. These moments are special because we don’t see that side of him often; and his happiness is when Non Western is at its most beautiful.

Score: 63/100

Non Western is currently playing at the online virtual festival called Cinequest, available here through Tuesday, March 30

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