Many of the tropes of the road movie are evident in Barking Water, director Sterlin Harjo’s second feature. There’s the beat-up old car, the travelers living off the kindness of friends and strangers, the alienation, and the claustrophobia of being stuck in a car with the same person for hundreds of miles contrasted with the wide-open natural beauty of the land all around the road and travelers. In this way, Barking Water is a road movie. But where it diverges a bit from simplistic genre classification is in the journey the characters take.
On-again-off-again lovers Frankie (Richard Ray Whitman) and Irene (Casey Camp-Horinek) embark on a metaphysical journey to Frankie’s physical and spiritual home in Barking Water, Oklahoma, as he begins succumbing to a terminal disease. The film begins with Irene busting Frankie out of the hospital and setting out in a Volvo that has seen better days. She doesn’t want to see Frankie waste away in the throes of machines, and the road provides her with an escape route.
But this journey isn’t simply about not wanting someone to die in a hospital. Rather, Frankie and Irene are Native Americans and have a great deal of pride in where, how, and with whom they spend the remainder of their days. So rather than traveling from the hospital, located in one part of Oklahoma, straight to Barking Water, a few hundred miles away, Irene takes Frankie to see family, friends, and places special to him, with the ultimate goal of seeing his estranged daughter and his granddaughter before he dies.
Harjo, a Native American himself, handles Frankie and Irene’s journey, and their relationship, soulfully. There is no question that they are racing against time, and that every minute spent somewhere is one less minute Frankie has on this earth. But Harjo doesn’t use that as an excuse to present a rose-colored version of their relationship or history. Frankie and Irene enjoy the company of each other, but there are as many tough moments as there are sweet ones, and usually they coexist.
One moment that captures this beautifully comes near the middle of the film. Frankie and Irene pick up a couple of college kids whose car has broken down. One of them, an overly chatty girl (Laura Spencer), asks how long Frankie and Irene have been married. Frankie makes up a number because they’re not married. The girl then asks if they have any kids. Frankie says he does. Girl asks why they don’t have any kids together. Irene, barely raising her voice, launches into a confession: They aren’t married. And they have no kids because Frankie kept leaving her. And you know what? The last time he walked out she told her brothers that he was a drunk and abusive. They beat him up for it, even though she made it up. And you know what? He never told them the truth.
In the hands of a lesser director, and lesser actors, this scene would play as nothing more than a cleansing of the soul. But Harjo weaves so much conflicting emotion into it, and Whitman and Camp-Horinek are so adept at acting with their eyes and slight changes in facial expressions, that it plays like a documentary. These are people that have been together for decades, whose lives are inextricably linked, and who know that the moments of mistrust, lies, and hate are fleeting because it’s the love that lasts. If soul mates exist, they are Frankie and Irene.
For 85 minutes, Barking Water builds its outward, narrative journey on these inward, emotional ones that explore the depths of connection to people, to places, and to culture. Sure that outer journey takes place on highways, and in that way the film belongs in the road movie genre. But the soulful inner journey allows the film to transcend the genre.
Barking Water debuted at Sundance this year, and recently played as part of the New Directors/New Film series in New York. But as of now Harjo doesn’t have distribution for the film. Let’s hope that changes. The landscape of American independent film needs someone like Sterlin Harjo who can craft films as a quiet, beautiful, complex, and dynamic as Barking Water.
An edited version of this piece was published at EmanuelLevy.com.