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Light of Day: Irene Bedard plays Reyna.

'Grand Avenue' is brave and beautiful

By David Templeton

THERE IS A FUNNY story that author Greg Sarris likes to tell. It's about his days as a student at Stanford, writing stories based on the motley, moneyless American Indian families of Santa Rosa's Grand Avenue, people whom he had come to think of as family in the late '60s when they all but adopted him. One of his English professors, an established novelist, was derisive of young Sarris' efforts, telling him that such starkly drawn tales had zero chance of ever being published.

Sarris, enjoying the irony, began telling this story at book signings after Grand Avenue: A Novel in Stories was published by Hyperion in 1984. The story became even funnier when he told it last fall, as a massive movie crew from HBO descended on Santa Rosa to film a three-hour movie based on the book and produced by Robert Redford.

By the time he told it again last Thursday night, speaking before a standing-room-only audience at the glitzy world premiere of HBO's production of Grand Avenue, the story become downright hilarious. "I never forgot that professor's words," Sarris grinned, standing in front of the giant screen at Luther Burbank Center. "And I recently heard that his latest novel was just rejected by the same publisher that printed mine."

If there is a touch of gleeful vengeance in his voice, this audience forgave him, responding with a deafening round of applause. For Sarris and the entire community of urban Native Americans--a group that remains virtually invisible to the dominant culture--all this positive attention and the lavish trappings of a movieland premiere must be very sweet indeed.

In fact, by the time the crowd, a large number of whom were members of the local Pomo and Miwok communities, had taken their seats in the auditorium, the excitement had built to a nearly excruciating degree. Then came Sarris' emotionally charged address to his people. "Someone came up to me earlier," he beamed, "and said, 'Greg, haven't we gone a little too Hollywood here?' And I said, 'That's not what's happening at all. It's not that we've gone Hollywood. It's that Hollywood's gone us!'"

AND GRAND AVENUE is deserving of star treatment. Aside from its position as the first major film (on television or otherwise) to present an honest glimpse into the lives of modern, urban Native Americans, it is also a solid work of art. Confidently directed by Emmy-winning Danny Sackheim (NYPD Blue, ER), this two-part event is as grand as it is raw and gritty, a powerful illumination of the inner lives of three loosely related Pomo Indian families. Connected by the ramshackle street on which they all live, and by a common struggle to rise above a bleak reality, these characters surmount the seemingly hopeless circumstances of their world.

Molly (Sheila Tousey) is an overwhelmed, alcoholic mother, drowning in despair. Her differently fathered children--Justine (Deeny Dakota), Alice (Dianne Debassige), and Sheldon (Cody Lightning)--test the waters of sex, gang association, and, in Alice's case, the spiritual practices of their people. Anna (Jenny Gago), Molly's cousin, is on the verge of losing her marriage as she fights to save her own teenage daughter, Jeanne (Simi Mehta), who's battling a malignant brain tumor.

Steven (A Martinez) is a guilt-ridden high school teacher, trying to face responsibility for his illegitimate daughter--who has unknowingly moved in down the street. His wife, Reyna (Irene Bedard), a nurse at a Native American health clinic, struggles to find a place within her husband's expanding familial identity. Then there is Nellie (Tantoo Cardinale), an Indian singer/
healer and basket maker, viewed as dangerously crazy by the local gangs, who finds that her simple songs still have a purpose, even in an era of desperation and disbelief.

Complicated and topical, this is no soap opera: the large ensemble cast is uniformly magnificent. Sarris' screenplay is strong, and Sackheim's direction (likely to put him in the running for another Emmy) is skillful, relentlessly presenting the ugliest details while sorting through them for fragments of beauty, wisdom, and hope.

The first half of Grand Avenue is, in fact, so despairing and grim that some viewers may not return for the second. They would be missing out on something extraordinary. The answers presented are nothing new--love, faith, trust, and forgiveness--but the possibilities they represent are seldom shown this powerfully.

Grand Avenue is brave and poetic. Its characters seem increasingly real, burrowing into the heart, taking hold with the same fierceness with which they fight for a small, good place in the world.


Grand Avenue premieres on HBO cable on June 30. Check your listings for times.

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From the June 27-July 3, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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