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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Woman Walks Ahead is a fact-based drama about New York painter Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), who traveled alone in 1890 to the Dakotas to paint a portrait of Chief Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes). There's a very upsetting scene of shocking violence against her: A rock hits her in the head; she's grabbed, punched, and kicked; and urine-soaked mud is rubbed in her face. She's shown bloody and bruised afterward. Other characters are shot and killed, with blood spurts, and there are several spoken references to shooting, killing, and other types of violence. Language isn't especially frequent but includes uses of "f--k," "s--t," "bitch," and more. There's a brief, out-of-focus shot of a naked male bottom, some sex-related talk, and a few sexually charged moments. Cigars are shown, and there's a reference to a character being drunk. Despite the mature material in some scenes, this drama has a satisfying emotional center, and Weldon is a strong role model with conviction and agency.
What's the story?
In WOMAN WALKS AHEAD, it's 1890, and New York painter Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain) decides that she's done mourning her late (and not much lamented) husband, and it's time to follow her dream. She wants to paint a portrait of Chief Sitting Bull, so she travels to North Dakota's Standing Rock reservation. But she receives a chilly reception from the white military men stationed there. Colonel Silas Groves (Sam Rockwell), who seems to have his own history with the Native Americans, is especially pushy. Still, Weldon manages to find and befriend Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes), and they set to work on the portrait. But it soon becomes clear that trouble is brewing as the U.S. military tries to push through a crooked treaty that will let them take half of the Lakota tribe's land. Sitting Bull and Weldon must decide how far to get involved before things get dangerous.
Is it any good?
Susanna White's biographical drama is a little traditional and occasionally a little stiff, but the growing relationship between Weldon and Sitting Bull at its center offers rich emotional rewards. Woman Walks Ahead (the title refers to a name given to Weldon by Sitting Bull) starts out as most "important" based-on-a-true-story movies do, with dates and places printed on the screen and with characters making fateful decisions about their lives. The characters' early interactions are routine and sometimes awkward, especially when Sitting Bull ridicules Weldon for underestimating him.
But as they get to know each other, the posturing falls away, and true things start to come out; their friendship and mutual respect, and even a moment of romantic tension, are eventually quite touching. Rockwell's character, too, evolves in an interesting way. At first he's an unpleasantly nasty, relentless racist, but in a powerful climactic scene, he reveals a complex backstory. He's not necessarily nicer, but he's more human. The screenplay by the talented Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Locke, Allied) manages to deal with Native American issues without seeming too heavy, and director White (Our Kind of Traitor), with only a bit of irritating camera wobbling, creates an Old West that's full of constricting interiors and glorious, overcast landscapes.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Woman Walks Ahead's violence. Did it shock you? Was it necessary to the story? How does it compare to what you might see in an action or war movie? Do all types of media violence have the same impact?
How does this movie's portrayal of Native Americans compare to others you've seen? What does Weldon learn about the Lakota people during the movie? How does her approach to Sitting Bull and his people compare to that of the other white characters?
The movie isn't wholly true to the details of Weldon's life (she was divorced, not widowed; she had a child; and she went by Caroline rather than Catherine). Why do you think the filmmakers chose to alter what actually happened? How could you find out more?
- In theaters: June 29, 2018
- On DVD or streaming: August 28, 2018
- Cast: Jessica Chastain, Sam Rockwell, Michael Greyeyes
- Director: Susanna White
- Studio: A24
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Great Girl Role Models, History
- Character strengths: Perseverance
- Run time: 101 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: brief violence and language
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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