The small town of Vici, with fewer than 800 residents, sits nestled atop the highest elevation in the region surrounding its quiet home in western Oklahoma. The sky hangs like a dome over the land – “The Dome of Heaven,” according to award-winning poet, playwright and novelist Diane Glancy, whose film by that name tells the intimate story of a Vici family.
Glancy wrote and directed the film, and shot it on location utilizing both celebrity and local talent. Her own personal history and Cherokee-German ancestry inform the Moses family’s struggle for stability – the boisterous family arguments between the German wife and mother (Silvia Kofler) and Cherokee husband and father (Wes Studi, a veteran actor who delivers a masterfully nuanced performance) are fueled by the couple’s two grown children, Franklin (Noah Watts), who works with his father in Hampton’s Garage in Vici, and Florence, a.k.a. “Flutie” (Thirza Defoe). Flutie emerges as the protagonist in her “struggle to find a voice – to speak, in other words,” Glancy says. “She is so quiet at times, she feels as though she does not have a tongue. Nonetheless, Flutie graduates high school and Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, studying geology because of the importance of the land in the film (the prairie, the Salt Plains, the Glass Mountains). The film is about the struggle for education and economic survival.”
Glancy is known for drawing upon both her personal history as well as American history for inspiration. Her previous works include Pushing the Bear: A Novel of the Trail of Tears and Designs of the Night Sky, both of which draw on the history of the Cherokee Removal, as well as Stone Heart: A Novel of Sacajawea. Her 1998 book Flutie was about Glancy’s experiences teaching in Vici for the State Arts Council of Oklahoma. Later that year, Glancy received a fellowship to the Sundance Native American Screenwriting workshop, where she wrote a film script from the book. “It stayed in my files until I reread it, and felt once again it should be an independent film,” Glancy says. A little more than a decade later, “The Dome of Heaven” is completed and scheduled for screening at the deadCENTER Film Festival on June 9, at 11:15am, at Harkins Theatre.
Before earning her master’s degree from the University of Central Oklahoma, Glancy completed a bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri, and later earned an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. Her voice is powerfully present in the film’s dialogue, which benefits from her prolific prose, poetry and dramatic writing, as well as her more than 20 years of teaching writing. “The Dome of Heaven” unfolds like a memoir, infused with poetic and often abstract passages juxtaposed with the simple verisimilitude of small-town people – many of whom were cast from the Vici community. Travis Dennett, for instance, a member of the town’s Chamber of Commerce and senior vice president of the Bank of Vici, first got on board with the film as a producer. While helping develop the film, Dennett landed an acting part in it, playing a banker who grants Flutie a school loan to attend university.
“Noah Watts stayed with us at our house during the filming,” Dennett says. “He and I stayed up until 2am throughout the two weeks of shooting, learning about each other. He wanted to know our regional dialect spoken here, how to handle tools while working on the cars in the garage, how to handle the gun. I learned some acting techniques from him, although I did very little acting in the film. The role I play in the film is a role I play every day at work. The local people… really embraced their roles, which contributed to the film’s authenticity.”
The Randall family, a local favorite family band who composed and performed the soundtrack for the film, also appear in it – Mark Randall plays Jess Tessman, and Molly Randall is Flutie’s friend “Swallow.”
“I would give Elra Randall the images I wanted in a song, and she’d have the song the next day,” Glancy says.
“The Dome of Heaven” is buoyed by strong performances from Studi, a Cherokee actor who has appeared in over 50 movie and TV productions from “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” to “Mystery Men,” and Watts, a seasoned, subtle performer of Crow and Blackfeet heritage. It is Thirza Defoe (Giizhiigoquay), though, who drives the film in her performance as Flutie. Defoe is an expert performer from the Ojibwe and Oneida tribes of Wisconsin, and has been performing since the age of eight as both a dancer and actor, traveling around the world to Spain, Japan, Egypt and Italy. While Vici may not be quite as exotic a location, the actress imbues Flutie with a complexity that keeps the audience guessing her fate until the end, when she “finds her voice,” as Glancy poetically reveals in Flutie’s personification of Vici in the story’s metaphorical context. Defoe gracefully finds the humor in Glancy’s script as well as the inner strength of her character to triumph in the end of the film.
Glancy does not achieve finding Flutie’s voice through the use of any massive explosions, sex or special effects. However, this quiet film is not docile – just thinking about Franklin’s accident in the garage should be enough to make viewers’ legs hurt afterward. But as Glancy helps Flutie find her quiet voice in a noisy world, the film also gives voice to Vici, a small Oklahoma town that also has something to say in this big world. “The film is about the significance of a small voice,” Glancy says, “the significance of ordinary lives under the large, western Oklahoma sky.”