At first glance, there isn’t much happening in the Black Mesa plateau region of Arizona, where the sleepy Navajo nation town spotlighted in The Blessing is situated. There are hard-working people, restless dreamers, and sprawling families, the type of authentic and sympathetic blue-collar characters who populate films like Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, yet are still largely unseen on screen. As shot by Hunter Baker, this documentary has all the visual poetry of the best movies about small-town America, even while portraying the muted and profound struggle of Navajo families through the prism of just two people.
The Blessing concerns a father and daughter. Lawrence is a traditionalist, a reluctant coal miner who feels he’s betraying the sacred earth even as he provides for his family at one of the country’s largest coal companies. He’s also an old-school sweetheart with a seemingly endless reserve of faith and positivity, a man whose failed marriage (he mentions his former drinking problem only briefly) inspires him to become wholeheartedly involved in the lives of his children and grandchildren. His daughter Caitlin is a smart tomboy suffocating under the weight of social expectations, but she also manages to make class president, homecoming queen, and even a member of her high school football team. He doesn’t recognize the depth of her pain and she doesn’t recognize his unconditional love: in its simple verisimilitude, The Blessing reveals isolation and acceptance as two chapters of the same story.
The Black Mesa region is unforgiving, sparse in both landscape and opportunity, but it’s also breathtakingly gorgeous as seen through Baker and co-director Jordan Feins’ eyes. The movie is ripe with shots of sparks in the night sky, rocks shaped by centuries of flowing water, and sinewed horses who Lawrence thanks with a prayer. Later, he buys Caitlin a car, and tells her, “It’s your pony, your vehicle. Your transportation. Talk to it, pray for it.” At its highest points, The Blessing is both a universal story of a parent wanting better for their child, and a specific one made up of tenuous, quietly vital moments like this.
At times, the movie feels slight. It doesn’t need to be emblematic of all Navajo experiences, but at some points it doesn’t even feel fully representative of its two subjects. By only interviewing Caitlin and Lawrence despite the presence of unnamed friends and family members surrounding them, and by filming them largely at home, the final product comes across as part of a larger whole that we’ll never be able to access.
But perhaps the film’s stubborn refusal to follow a traditional trajectory is emblematic in itself. No one is coming to rescue the failing coal company that is Lawrence’s livelihood. No one is offering Caitlin a magical path to success, or reassuring her that her fears won’t be realized. This family isn’t here for the pity or guilt or edification of white audiences, nor for the empowerment of Native ones: they’re just here. It’s them and only them, pulling strength from themselves, one another, and the bittersweet land they call home.