Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo’s Reservation Dogs (streaming now in New Zealand on Disney+) explores life for a group of friends on a reservation in Oklahoma.
The sensibilities of the show harken back to the slice of life storytelling seen in Waititi’s Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Dramedies that reflect Waititi’s youth growing up in New Zealand Indigenous communities and are relatable coming-of-age stories filled with spunky pop-culture referencing youths. The kids in Reservation Dogs share that common ground while also having a kindred core to the sort of Amblin-esque films we grew up on at the end of the 19th century.
It was joyous to see the alchemy between Harjo and Waititi when I started watching Reservation Dogs. To see space be made for underrepresented stories and contain multitudes. It presents a much-needed look at life on reservations in America by showing kids just being kids. Their joys, their awkward phases, and adventures. Real without exploiting struggles.
The first few episodes show the Reservation Dogs, in their Tarantino flourish suits, working hustles to raise money to get out of dodge after the loss of their friend Daniel. Led by Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs) and Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) who motivate and plan to find a way out for their own they band together with Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), that quiet friend with the one-liners that hit out of nowhere, and Cheese (Lane Factor) is just pure heart. They’re hilarious and heartwarming all at once.
There are brushstrokes of Breakfast Club, Goonies, and Stand By Me but Reservation Dogs paints a different portrait to show life on the Rez. It’s a show that doesn’t need a few episodes to get going. The truck heist in the pilot will hook you and episodes like “What About Your Dad” might rip your heart out. Each character has an episode to explore their own hopes and dreams. Last week’s Cheese-centric story brought laughs and a touch of Wellington Paranormal, with a ride-along encounter with Native American cryptid folklore. It is this past week’s episode that centered on Elora that brought the tears.
The mid-season episode “California Dreamin’” echoes shared timeless dreams that aren’t always within the same reach. The familiar journey of trying to get out of your small town to make it to California has been one that’s become such a huge part of cinema throughout all genres. Truth is that it doesn’t shake out for everyone in the ways they imagine due to the realities of life.
The episode guest stars Bill Burr in a Dead Poets Society turn where he plays Elora’s former basketball coach. The story reveals she was a former star player like her mom and she finds out that her former coach took up a DMV gig to look for his daughter. The duo connect on living in the margins while trying to survive when those they grew up with didn’t. The real reason Elora doesn’t know how to drive and why she wants to leave for California hits resonating themes of trying to escape grief but having to face systemic inequality. Burr serves as a mentor figure who “got out” and returns home to seek out the daughter who made choices to endanger themselves. It deftly handles revelations with care when dealing with the tragedies that happen, the choices we have or don’t, and how the consequences cannot be outrun. Devery Jacobs delivers the standout performance of the season with raw profundity and unveils the heart of the show.
I cannot wait to see the friends all together again and how their stories will unfold. Their coming-of-age tale is one that’s been so necessary and vital to see. Like Spielberg and John Hughes before them, Waititi and Harjo are raconteurs uplifting a new wave of filmmakers to expand the lens of the stories we see, and you can’t miss this one. If there was a time to catch up on Reservation Dogs, it’s now.
Reservation Dogs is streaming now in New Zealand on Disney+.