Morrisa Maltz Directs a Beautiful ‘Unknown Country’ Sequel

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While there was much Oscar buzz around “Killers of the Flower Moon” actor Lily Gladstone (one of the most exciting cinematic names of the past decade), there was another Gladstone-starrer out in the world last year, quietly captivating a smaller audience in limited release. That picture was Morrisa Maltz’s hypnotic road movie “The Unknown Country,” an original narrative touched by a documentarian’s perceptive sensibility that followed Gladstone’s Tana on a journey through the American Midwest and, ultimately, her grief. Those who made the time for Maltz’s modest film then met the young Native girl Jasmine “Jazzy” Shangreaux, Maltz’s real-life goddaughter. Now, the young girl gets her own vehicle with the tender and poetic “Jazzy,” debuting at Tribeca Festival.

At first glance, “Jazzy” might seem more polished and traditionally structured than its predecessor. But the two films share a proudly scrappy and loose-limbed spirit in their soulful, tranquil pace. Like “The Unknown Country,” “Jazzy” is a film where everything happens beneath its surface without much happening on its façade — Maltz just patiently observes her characters and their South Dakota environs, sneakily immersing the viewers in the girlhood rhythms of Jazzy and her best friend, Syriah Fool Head Means, over a six-year period that the story covers in just over 80 minutes. If recent documentaries like “Cusp,” “Girls State” and “Four Daughters” proved that the inner lives of young girls will always be among the most fascinating subjects of non-fiction cinema, “Jazzy” cements this assertion with confidence, despite not exactly being a documentary itself.

And yet, the film is still infused with various truthful layers of lived-in experiences, with heaps of input from both Jazzy and Syriah in a script written by Maltz, Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, Vanara Taing and Andrew Hajek, who is also behind the film’s elegant cinematography. That honesty glows with a meditative quality while Jazzy and Syriah experience the ups and downs of adolescence, a period when every friendship beat is high-stakes, every day is impossibly long and every conversation contains a surprising dose of wisdom.

Meanwhile, boys, too, are in the orbit of the film, in a more humorous manner. In that, it’s impossible not to giggle a little when Maltz, perhaps accidentally, captures how much faster girls generally mature than boys. When the young women bicker on about ice cream (to one of the boys, a girl not liking ice cream is a red flag), Jazzy and Syriah voice pithily spot-on critical opinions about grown-ups’ obsession with cars. “Having a dream car is dumb. Just get a car and drive.”

Still, Maltz is not here to make any grand philosophical claims about the girls’ developmental phases. In the end, Jazzy and Syriah are just two kids who love their stuffed animals and hold some ambivalence about growing up, knowing that their youth and innocence spare them from the responsibilities of adulthood and they should enjoy it while it lasts. But that doesn’t mean their lives are free of drama. (Of course, young girls’ lives are often nothing but drama.) For instance, a considerable stretch in “Jazzy” revolves around a falling out between the two friends, when Syriah decides to ignore Jazzy out of nowhere in the most painful friendship breakup we’ve seen since “The Banshees of Inisherin.” At first, Syriah’s behavior feels inexplicable and absurd. But when the reason behind it comes out, the audience might feel something profound snap inside of them. Kids or adults both themselves from pain in mysterious ways.

Rest assured, “Jazzy” isn’t ultimately the story of that break-up; rather, it’s a tale of a delicate yet unbreakable friendship that morphs through tricky familial relationships, romantic and bodily awakenings and the shared language of youth that will ring true for and translate into any tongue effortlessly. Perhaps a smart distributor will recognize that, along with the understated loveliness that blossoms throughout “Jazzy.” The film’s warm beauty soundly clicks into place when Gladstone enters the picture, lending a listening ear to a vulnerable Jazzy in a generous scene that gently ties the picture back to “The Unknown Country.” This might be a world overrun by spinoffs and sequels, but a wise filmmaker will get one right every once in a while. With “Jazzy,” the fiercely indie Maltz joins that select group on her own spiritual terms.

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