Tribeca Review: Jazzy is a Whimsical Expansion of The Unknown Country Universe

Tribeca Review: Jazzy is a Whimsical Expansion of The Unknown Country Universe

Expanding the cinematic universe of her first feature The Unknown Country, Morrisa Maltz’s Jazzy is a beautifully crafted portrait of childhood in South Dakota, conjuring an aesthetic that at times recalls the ethereal works of Sofia Coppola. Made in close collaboration with her subjects, Jazzy expands one of the documentary interstitials featured in her previous film, creating a portrait of a country that is known through the eyes of two tween girls growing up in a material community. For much of the film, adults are heard but remain offscreen, the fathers are unseen, and the film’s third act contains a catharsis that recalls how The Unknown Country resolved itself. Maltz often collaborates with a population she is not part of, her films often revolving around the idea of community––those you find or get back together with.

For fans of The Unknown Country, the third act of Jazzy has a deep emotional resonance that I was not expecting: the return of Lily Gladstone’s Tana, here willing to share her wisdom with Jazzy. While that earlier film was about a solitary journey––a deliberately paced road movie that held a mirror up to “flyover” country––Jazzy is less nomadic, equally impactful.

Jasmine Bearkiller Shangreaux plays the titular lead, seen early in various stages of her life from age 6 through 12. She spends most of her days with best friend Syriah (played by Syriah Fool Head Means) living in an integrated South Dakota community made up largely of trailers that is adjacent to but far enough from the reservation. Jazzy takes care of her baby sister while also navigating a kind of free-range childhood imagined mostly in aesthetically spectacular montages set to the synth-pop of Future Islands. 

Although a work about much different conditions, I did recall Tracey Deer’s Beans, a semi-autobiographical film set against the backdrop of the 1990 Oka Crisis at Kanesatake. Deer’s picture feels more personal in its dark revelations; Maltz is working collaboratively, at a distance. Although quite brief, Jazzy perhaps has a little more in common with the works of the film’s producers (the Duplass brothers) than Beans, finding itself in the middle ground of narrative and aestheticized documentary.

None of this would matter, however, if the film wasn’t endearing and engaging, and Maltz delivers in that regard, encoding a larger-than-life importance on her protagonists that recalls David Gordon Green’s debut George Washington and the earlier passages of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. A turning point comes when Syriah starts ignoring Jazzy for seemingly no reason at all, until we find out that their mothers are fighting. The film also contains familiar coming-of-age moments along the way, from extracurricular activities, childhood crushes, and days and nights spent exploring the community.

Wonderfully lensed by Andrew Hajek and rhythmically edited by Laura Colwell and Vanara Taing, Jazzy is an often whimsical portrait of childhood and tradition that feels loose, playful, and boundless with raw emotions and a sense of hopefulness. While one never expected The Unknown Country to spawn a cinematic universe, it will be exciting to see if every few years Maltz revisits Tana and Issac (Raymond Lee) and those they met along the way, especially Jazzy and Syriah. 

Jazzy premiered at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

Grade: B

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