Precious few widely distributed films portray Native Americans as part of a living, contemporary culture (Smoke Signals and the works of Sterlin Harjo are good examples), and there don’t seem to be any films primarily about lacrosse. Until now: Crooked Arrows takes on both subjects, with more corniness than even a sports movie should have.
In the film, Joe Logan (Brandon Routh), who uses his Native American heritage for profit by running a casino, seeks approval for a big land development deal from the tribal council, which includes his stern but loving father (Gil Birmingham). The council agrees to his proposal, with one totally normal and uncontrived condition: he must take over as coach of the reservation high school’s lacrosse team. As the team competes in an upstate New York prep school league, the reluctant Joe learns lessons, the kids learn lessons, and it all climaxes with a big championship game that demonstrates the enduring power of the hoariest underdog clichés to rouse an audience.
Friday Night Lights has set a high bar for onscreen depictions of sports — not just for its tough, vividly realistic game scenes, but also for the startling accuracy with which it captured the overall experience of being part of an athletic team. The creators of Crooked Arrows have apparently sought to avoid any such comparisons by instead using The Mighty Ducks as their template (though they draw clichés from the full gamut of sports cinema). The cast, especially the mostly nonprofessional teens (hired because they could play lacrosse) and Dennis Ambriz as the team’s namesake, do their best with a script that abounds in wince-inducing dialogue and questionable logic. As awkward as the off-the-field scenes are, however, the film comes alive at gametime, especially during the finale.
Crooked Arrows is notable among mainstream films for its sincere depiction of Native American culture, although that culture is fictional (the film’s Sunaquot tribe is a composite of nations in the Haudenosaunee league) and the film can’t resist a few forays into stereotyped mystagogy. Also, it trivializes the challenges its heroes face by pitting them against paper-tiger snobs and bigots, including the 80s-villain-like coach of an opposing team whose dialogue consists of lacrosse versions of “Sweep the leg, Johnny.” Crooked Arrows is likely to amuse and inspire children and young teens, especially Native American kids unused to seeing themselves portrayed onscreen. Maybe it will even pave the way for better films of its type. But as it is, it feels like a missed opportunity.