Tantoo Cardinal shines in the new film ‘Falls Around Her’

Darlene Naponse and Tantoo Cardinal team up to create a fascinating study of a First Nations musician who leaves her career behind.


Mary Birchbark is tired of performing. When we first see her in Darlene Naponse’s newest film, Falls Around Her, she is prepping for a rock concert backstage. She emerges to sing to a packed concert venue, but something is amiss. She heads backstage, ditches the venue and quickly escapes without telling a soul. Anyone who’s ever tried to run from messy entanglements knows it’s never that easy. The past has a way of making sure it will be dealt with.

Mary is played by accomplished Métis actress Tantoo Cardinal, who, at this stage in her career, is at the top of her game. Indigenous women in film are frequently written as stereotypes: strong and matriarchal, women of virtue, either the backbone of the family or a hopeless wreck. Cardinal herself has played many of these roles, from the faithful Black Shawl in 1990’s Dances with Wolves to Arlene Joseph, a woman trying to get her life together in 1998’s Smoke Signals. But Naponse, who is Anishinaabe, gives us a different take, this time showing an older Indigenous female artist in the midst of a nervous breakdown, who still maintains agency and a complex inner life. She’s not taking care of others or dispensing lessons. She has her own stuff to work out, and it’s fascinating.

Tantoo Cardinal plays Mary Birchbark, a disillusioned musician who returns to where she grew up.
Film still from "Falls Around Her"

After abandoning the show and her life on the road, Mary returns to the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation Reserve in northern Ontario to recharge in isolation. Her family, however, has other plans. They want to restore Mary to their idea of well-being, but they don’t completely understand where she’s coming from. Mary isn't like them. She’s determined to regroup and refocus her life in private, and no one will leave her alone. Mary explains to her sister, “I’ve got this process.” Her sister replies, “Is it working?” To which Mary quickly replies, “Not really.”

Sex is seldom touched upon in Indigenous cinema, and it’s refreshing to see how Naponse and Cardinal handle it in the film. There is a masturbation scene, a rarity for female characters in cinema, much less for an Indigenous character, and it’s a bold choice that can and should be developed further by other Indigenous filmmakers. Native people have sex, too, sometimes by themselves. Additionally, Mary has at least two (white) lovers, and a possible Indigenous third (Albert, played by Johnny Issaluk), who keeps knocking, attracted by her talent and complexity. The fact that her lovers are white is not commented on, because, well, it doesn’t need to be. Rare is the chance to see an Indigenous woman own her own sexuality in film.

It’s inspiring to watch Cardinal shine front and center throughout the film. When you watch her on screen, there’s a sense of wonderment in Cardinal’s eyes: They hint at unspeakable pain and yet convey perseverance, with a hint of anticipation. She is impossible to look away from.

Cardinal’s performance in Falls Around Her is in direct conflict with the simplistic way the general public generally wants to see Indians, or believes it knows them. People like Mary Birchbark are not here to provide guidance or offer sage wisdom. She is trying to find her way, just like everyone else. Her very existence reveals that the inner life of Indians can be just as messy as anyone’s — maybe even messier.

I would be remiss if I did not note an unfortunate instance of cliché sound design: the requisite sound of a rattle during a tense scene. As an Indigenous viewer of Indigenous films, I am averse to several things, three of them being eagle cries, flutes and rattles. They always take me out of the story. These tropes have been used by non-Native filmmakers for decades and, unfortunately, adopted by many Native filmmakers. You could argue that these sounds are real things in Indigenous communities and that maybe we should reclaim them. You wouldn’t get an argument from me, if it were done correctly, but it is difficult terrain to navigate. Until we figure out how to use these sounds wisely, we should declare a moratorium.

In the end, Darlene Naponse has created a rite-of-passage film with an elegant protagonist who remains in my memory. Mary Birchbark is a thoroughly developed Indigenous female character, and Cardinal’s understated and efficient performance is the kind that only a professional at her level could do. When an Anishnaabe man asks Mary outside of a market, “Why did you stop singing?” Mary simply replies, “I was tired.” Sometimes you just get tired, and you don’t owe anyone any answers.

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee Creek writer and director (and an occasional actor) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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