By Katie Grimes
She Sings to the Stars (2015). United States, 103 minutes. Directed by Jennifer Corcoran. Starring Larry Cedar, Fannie Loretto, and Jesus Mayorga.
“Do you believe in the impossible?” The magician flourishes his hand and points a wand directly at his one-woman audience. Mabel, her eyes wide and expectant, nods solemnly. The question may be part of the magician’s act, but both characters take it seriously on some level. For Mabel, belief is second nature; she refuses to put boundaries on the possible and discount the supernatural. As its main character, she exemplifies the essence of She Sings to the Stars, a film that asks viewers to reconsider the limits they impose on the world. A film that insists on magic.
She Sings to the Stars is a thought-provoking, artful film that seeks to alter the way its viewers see the world. For 100 minutes, the film takes us deep into the dry Southwestern landscape to experience the convergence of three characters’ lives: those of Mabel, a Native American grandmother who carefully tends to her garden of corn and looks to the stars for comfort; Third, her Latino grandson who dreams of dancing and making it to the big city; and Lyle, a world-weary magician just looking to get to his next gig. Poor circumstance in the form of a broken-down car, a snake bite, and a persistent drought works to weave their disparate stories together. The constant theme of She Sings to the Stars is possibility: why must reality have boundaries? Lyle, though he can see through his own tricks, continually looks for reasons to believe. Fascinated by space, UFOs, and Star Trek’s transporters, he wants to know “why don’t people want magic anymore?” A question that is then directed to the film’s viewers. The entire film is surreal. The overwhelming expanse of cloudless sky and barren land—in addition to the ever-present hum of crickets—take over the viewer’s experience. The desert is a mysterious place that makes us question what is happening in some scenes: Is it a dream? A mirage? Waking reality? No one can be sure. And in that liminal space, miraculous things are allowed to happen.
One of the film’s most relevant elements is its portrayal of Native American characters. Historically, Native Americans as a whole have been misrepresented by mainstream media, whether stereotyped or completely ignored. In Zak Cheney-Rice’s article “7 Things About Native Americans You’ll Never Learn From the Mainstream Media,” three indigenous media makers discuss several misconceptions that the media overlooks in its portrayals of Native Americans, including the fact that Native Americans encompass diverse groups from across the country, are not relics from the past, and have important stories to tell. In contrast to traditional media, She Sings to the Stars is radical simply because it portrays modern Native American people in a realistic way. Though the film never mentions a specific tribe, it is assumed from the kachina dolls that cover their home that Mabel and Third are Pueblo. Mabel talks intermittently about her tribe’s past and culture: the kachina dolls are a reminder that there is a spirit in everything; the government sent her and her classmates to a boarding school and gave them new names to replace their Indian names. There is a sense that she is struggling to hold onto the traditions that are important to her, ones that she wishes to pass on to her grandson. In the end of the film, when Third decides to keep the kachina dolls instead of selling them, this wish is realized as Third embraces his heritage as something to be proud of. A person of mixed ethnicity, Third occupies an in-between space with which many mixed-race Americans can relate. At one point in the film, Lyle asks Third whether he is Mexican or Indian. In his reply, Third echoes the familiar frustration of those with a mixed identity: “I’m American. What’s it to you, anyway?” Third’s identity belongs to him, and he doesn’t feel the need to explain it to others.
She Sings to the Stars is the first in a series of films by Circeo Films about the unique stories and voices of women, specifically their “relationship to the indefinable.” This film certainly portrays Mabel as mysterious, wise, receptive, and nurturing—both setting her apart from her younger, angrier male counterparts and establishing her special relationship to nature and the supernatural. The dialogue of the film, however, tends to focus on the stories of the men: their trials, their inner struggles, their hopes and dreams. Lyle’s character especially—with his loud, blunt speech and abrasive personality—seemed to take over the story and overpower the presence of the other two characters. As part of a series about women, I wish the film had focused more on Mabel’s character, her emotional life and growth, and her past—that she had had more of an established character arc. We get little snippets about Mabel’s childhood but no details; further explanations about these stories or short flashbacks could have added to her character development and deepened the audience’s connection with her. Despite these weak points, it is rare to find a film that portrays contemporary Native Americans so well, cultivating complex, realistic identities.
All in all, She Sings to the Stars is a film with a clear purpose: to make viewers question the nature of reality and possibility. And it accomplished its purpose by delving into Native American culture, taking advantage of a gorgeous desert setting, and melding science fiction, spirituality, and everyday magic. “Whatever you believe, that’s the magic,” Mabel says. And by the end of the film, we believe her.