The first ten minutes of Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s affecting fly on the wall documentary “The Seventh Fire” feature several shots of the expansive Midwestern sky. These are not, however, simply shots of the sky for the sky’s sake, to offer picturesque transition or scene-setting. The sky we see is often dark and cloudy, threatening rain, and finally, in one shot, thunder cracks and the clouds open up. This is portentous, not so much of what’s to come as what already is. After all, the setting is the White Earth Indian Reservation in northwest Minnesota. And while Pettibone Riccobono almost exclusively refrains from painting overt parallels between the plight of the Native Americans on the screen and how America in general has essentially left these people behind, well, it’s difficult not to draw that conclusion anyway. Occasionally people on the reservation take their crummy furniture outside their crummy carbon copy homes, set it ablaze and leave it to burn. They don’t care what happens to it.
With this bleak environment as a backdrop, “The Seventh Fire” attaches itself to two men, eighteen year old Kevin Fineday and something loosely akin to Kevin’s mentor, Rob Brown, a lifelong criminal on the verge of going back to jail, thereby abandoning his pregnant girlfriend who makes a heartbreaking lament that one day he might settle down, staring off toward him with the eyes of a person who knows her wish will never come true. Rob’s demeanor is fairly warm and he never comes across like some morally repugnant sociopath, yet one shot finds him snorting lines of blow right in front of a little baby girl. It’s deeply unsettling and makes you wonder what goes on when the camera’s off.
For much of the film, Rob seems utterly indifferent to his fate. As he is ushered into the courtroom to hear his sentence read, he does a little dance for the camera, which betrays his flippant attitude toward the whole process. “I’ve been around here,” he says to his lawyer afterwards, like it’s the garage and he’s getting his tools. Yet later, when he is about to be shepherded off to jail, he makes a plea by phone to his father, who we do not see, for bail money to give him a little extra time in the free world before he goes away. As he does, all his posturing slips away. He buries he head as he cries, like he doesn’t want us to see.
Indeed, it’s the glimpse of a soulful side, one that occasionally emerges, perhaps against his want. Earlier, for the benefit of the camera and, in turn, us, he reads through his entire rap sheet, an upbringing of abuse and all manner of petty crimes. Tucked in there, though, is the revelation that he’s a writer and that he hopes to one day get published. You wonder what happened to that desire.
You hope that Kevin finds that desire. Several times Kevin repeats a variation of the standby phrase that there is nothing for someone like him to do other than get in trouble, which generally seems like his aim in the mostly aimless sequences of hanging out with his girlfriend and friends. His jovial father expresses a desire for his son to make the right choices, but also cops to feeling as if he has no more advice to give, that his son has to make the right decision for himself.
If there is a flaw here, it’s that we never get to know Kevin as well as we do Rob, perhaps because in many of his interactions Kevin appears to be putting up a hardened front, not dissimilar to Rob’s and the way he dances upon entry to the courtroom. Briefly Kevin explores the possibilities outside of White Earth, an emerging area of hope, not unlike the late movie evocation of Rob possibly re-embracing his ancestry, where we momentarily glimpse a past photo of him in Indian headdress as he reveals his Indian name – Two Thunderbirds.
It never goes much further than that, content to let an air of mystery remain, underscoring the journey of life itself and how it can push forward, but also loop back around and get stuck. There is not much in the way of drama here; there is mostly just waiting and hanging out, like this lifestyle begs you to go off the rails. That is not an excuse and “The Seventh Fire” never makes one for either of these men, and, frankly, the men themselves don’t either. As the movie progresses, the more sunshine we are allowed to see, though by the end, once again, the images have conspicuously returned to thunderclouds.