Snow-bordered highways, a cat winking its jade eye, the tentative yet always observant expressions of the main character Tana (Lily Gladstone) are among the low-key pleasures of “The Unknown Country,” the director-writer Morrisa Maltz’s luminously photographed, delicately paced road movie.
After the death of her grandmother, whom she cared for, Tana accepts an invitation to attend her cousin’s wedding in South Dakota. She hasn’t been with her Oglala Lakota family since she was eight.
Tana’s wintry drive from Minneapolis to her cousin Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux’s in Spearfish, S.D., is just the first leg in a journey that will take her to the Pine Ridge Reservation and southward to Texas, as she traces an itinerary taken from her grandmother’s photo album. One picture shows Tana’s grandmother as a young woman, a craggy vista in the distance, and finding where the photo was taken starts to shape Tana’s sojourn.
Shangreaux, her husband, Devin, and their daughter, Jasmine, are among the performers here portraying themselves. In the film’s most inventive, gently disruptive gesture, the nonprofessional cast members’ actual stories are recounted in their voice-overs. Think of these mini-documentary profiles — of a waitress (Pam Richter), a gas station attendant (Dale Leander Toller), a motor lodge owner (Scott Stampe), and the nonagenarian Florence R. Perrin, a two-stepping mainstay at the Western Kountry Klub in Midlothian, Texas, as rest stops in Tana’s trip.
Gladstone, who stars in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming “Killers of the Flower Moon,” delivers a performance that is hushed and anchoring. But the film’s gentle detours into the real-life stories remind us that it is the people met on the road that so often make the trip memorable.
The Unknown Country
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes. In theaters.