Up Heartbreak Hill details the lives of three teenagers living on a Navajo reservation as they try to apply for college. The graduation rate at the school is about 50%, and only 1 in 10 students will finish college. Thomas is a school track star who comes from a home deeply troubled by drugs and abandonment. Gabriella wants to be a photographer, and her main source of support is from her boyfriend. Tamara, the school saluditorian, wants to go to school off the reservation, and her parents want her to stay.
Before the movie began, two people from community charities talked about programs to help inner city youth prepare to go to college. One of the women talked about how young people have to grow up in a “college culture.” This quote reminded me of another documentary I have seen, called The Lottery, about a charter school where the teachers and principals call all of the students “future college graduates.” It’s clear from the film that very few of the students on the reservation think of themselves as “future college graduates.” The reservation schools have very little money to spend on their education, and the students have very few role models in this regard. When the students attend a college fair, they seem generally confused as to how to look for potential colleges.
All three of the students face terrible obstacles on the path to graduation and college. Thomas seems to have the worst time of all of them. His home life is generally in shambles, with his father using drugs and his mother living off the reservation. Thoms at times acts out and shows signs of behavioral problems. It’s hardly surprising, given his personal circumstances.
I was also struck by how non-Native the children seemed, even living on the reservation. The movie briefly touches on the fact that schools in decades past tried to stamp out the Navajo language, and Tamara struggles to speak a greeting in Navajo at the end of the movie. I felt saddened seeing this, because the youth in the reservation seemed to be a little lost. They have lost a strong connection to their own heritage, and that is tough to regain.
The film was beautifully shot (of course the Southwestern landscape helps!) and I really did become involved in the characters’ stories. I was rooting for Thomas in the last race of his high school career, and I desperately wanted all of them to graduate and attend college. The film also adds in some lighter moments as well, and I left the film feeling that there is hope for the youth of the Navajo reservation, despite their tremendous obstacles.