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Growing up sucks. Like so many John Hughes films have taught us, average American teenagers grapple with all kinds of isolation and self-doubt while figuring out who they are and how they relate to their families. Add to that the challenges of growing up on a Native American reservation, and it’s more complex still. Up Heartbreak Hill follows the lives of three Native American youth as they finish up high school and figure out what to do next. A mohawked runner, an Anti-Flag loving photographer, and a young scholar have to figure out how to relate to their traditional culture in light of modern times, and the plight of their impoverished people isn’t lost on them. The familiar decision of whether or not to leave home after graduation is complicated by both loyalty to the reservation and a desire for a better life. The film showcases the teens’ athletic, artistic, and academic skills, while documenting familial issues that often come with Native American life. It’s a fascinating and underdocumented subject, and the placing native coming-of-age rituals alongside contemporary teen life makes it all the more compelling. After so many recent Michael Cera flicks, the Broken Social Scene-saturated indie rock soundtrack feels a bit overdone, but Up Heartbreak Hill is otherwise a refreshing, original film about the challenges of indigenous youth.
Up Heartbreak Hill screens on October 3 at 1pm at National Geographic.