A new short film shot on the Kalispel Tribe Reservation seeks to portray Indigenous people in a way not often seen and features two prominent Indigenous actors in a story about a trickster spirit who causes trouble for a family.
Written and directed by sisters Misty and Hope Shipman, “The Handsome Man” tells the story of River, a woman who meets a strange figure known as the Handsome Man on the reservation and invites him home, only to discover that she’s met a trickster spirit. Misty Shipman said his actions and disregard for River’s family cause unceasing commotion until a decision has to be made.
The short film is based on a story by Johnny Arlee, a Salish-language adviser at the Kalispel Tribe of Indians who had a minor role in the 1972 Western “Jeremiah Johnson” and now lives in Montana.
Misty Shipman (Shoalwater Bay Tribe) said Arlee reached out to her and Hope in 2021 asking them to adapt the story into a short film. Shipman added that they were both deeply honored to be asked to do it.
“(Arlee) is this luminary figure in our community, universally adored and respected, and it was a huge honor that he asked us of all the people he knows, he knows so many film folks, and it was incredible that he asked us to do it,” said Shipman, adding that it shows how much he honors and respects Native American women’s voices in film.
The short film stars Evan Adams (a Tla’amin First Nation actor who starred in the hit film “Smoke Signals”) as the titular Handsome Man and Lily Gladstone (a Blackfoot and Nez Perce actress who will appear in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film “Killers of the Flower Moon”) as River, who becomes entranced by him.
“The Handsome Man is a bit of a cursed man, and in my mind, he represents some of the maladaptation that we sometimes get after going through trauma or having a hard time trying to get to a better place,” Adams said.
Adams described his character as someone who needs to heal and be able to look himself in the eye and find his inner voice again. He said his character is a broken man who can drag others down with him, but those around him continue to try to lift him up despite the pain he causes.
Adams said his role is different from others he’s played before. As opposed to his character Thomas in “Smoke Signals” and similar nice guy roles, the Handsome Man had him find the worst in him and is a role he’s not used to portraying.
“The story is very Indigenous, it’s one I’ve heard many times about how our people are working from a damaged place, and what is that like for others who are in their life and what is it like to be that kind of character,” Adams said.
Gladstone described her character River as someone who is introverted, alternative and her own person who struggles with being lonely. While her character had a strong sense of who she thought she was, Gladstone said she ultimately had some blind spots and unmet needs that made her a prime target for someone like the Handsome Man.
“Where I was really intrigued by River was how, even though there’s this moment of disturbance with her family, the love and support from them ultimately is what heals her and then therefore … they end up healing (the Handsome Man),” Gladstone said.
Gladstone said she was interested in seeing and exploring how her character has the power to reconcile with her family, forgive and move together toward healing. She said her character’s capacity for love and forgiveness introduced an important conversation regarding how people handle those who have hurt them.
Shipman said both actors bring humanity to their characters in a deep way. For her and fellow Indigenous people, she said it’s transcendent and spiritual because they don’t always get excellent representation – and when they do, they’re often relegated to the past.
“The fact of the matter is that we’re here right now, we’re present right now, and we have stories that are very worthy of being told,” Shipman said.
In the short film, Shipman said she and Hope intentionally portrayed the characters as upper-class, rich people because Indigenous people are often portrayed as impoverished and needing help from an outsider to save them.
Shipman said Indigenous communities need modern stories as well as the wider world that might hold perceptions of these communities that are rooted in the past, history and trauma.
“While all of that is very real, I also want to look to the future, and what our ancestors preserved for us was the ability to have our culture, our languages and our sacred stories, and that’s really what ‘The Handsome Man’ is about,” Shipman said. “It’s perpetuating the legacy that our elders and ancestors gave us as Indigenous people.”
Speaking to her own experience, Shipman said she chooses stories that reflect hope and heritage for fellow Indigenous people and show the strength they and their families have and the healing power of ceremonies.
Gladstone said being able to make films today is a beautiful way to revitalize old stories and find new ways of telling their stories.
“Both Lily and Evan are such giving people, so to have both of them involved in this project is … a very exciting thing to see on screen,” said Julia Keefe, executive director of One Heart Native Arts & Film Festival and member of the Nez Perce Tribe.
Shipman said filming took place in December at several locations on the Kalispel Indian Reservation. The film is produced by the film festival, and Keefe said it was important to shoot the film locally because the location brought authenticity to the story. She added that local Tribal members were cast as secondary characters.
The festival handled contractual agreements with the actors and Screen Actors Guild, arranged travel and lodging, got COVID-19 tests and managed hospitality and transportation for actors, among other requests, Keefe said.
“(The festival) was able to pick up the additional challenges and tasks that come with any sort of film production so that (Shipman) and her crew can just focus on making art,” Keefe said. “That’s the role that One Heart played, and we’re really happy to do it.”
Keefe said every aspect of the film’s production was driven by “Native creatives.” “Not only is the narrative powerful in and of itself, but as a viewer to know that every single frame, sound and aspect of this production was filmed in Eastern Washington was very much driven by Native people in Washington state,” Keefe said.
“The Handsome Man” is expected to be shown at the annual One Heart Native Arts & Film Festival this fall. For more information, visit oneheartfestival.org.