Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) / Drama
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but would be R for sexuality, some violence, language, drug use, and drinking involving teens
Running Time: 98 min.
Cast: John Reddy, Jashaun St. John, Irene Bedard, Taysha Fuller, Eleonore Hendricks
Director: Chloe Zhao
Screenplay: Chloe Zhao
Review published March 9, 2016
Set in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Songs My Brothers Taught Me primarily revolves around seventeen-year-old brother Johnny Winters (Reddy) and his eleven-year-old sister Jashaun (St. John), living with their alcoholic single mother Lisa (Bedard, Pocahontas) in a vast community that resides well below the poverty line. With local jobs in very short supply, John makes a few bucks here and there delivering bootleg alcohol and weed to his Oglala Lakota brethren in a place that, despite alcohol being forbidden, is plagued by alcoholism, and a lack of easy roads in life. Meanwhile, their biological father, a rodeo performer who sired over two dozen half-brothers and sisters in his lifetime around the reservation with many different women, has died in a fire. The community gets together in their mourning, but the wounds run fresh, leaving an anguished Jashaun wanting the closeness of her brother, who is already making plans to leave her behind, set to move thousand of miles away with his girlfriend Aurelia, who is on the verge of leaving to college in Los Angeles.
Filmed without a written script, featuring mostly a collection of non-actors who are from Pine Ridge itself, Chinese-born first-time writer-director Chloe Zhao filmed over a hundred hours of footage in and around the locale, filling it with as much of the authentic local flavor as possible to flesh out the burgeoning narrative. Making a cross-cultural film as an outsider is always a tricky proposition, as it can be very easy to misrepresent the culture depicted. Indeed, Hollywood's depiction has often been criticized in depicting Native Americans as either savage or full of eternal wisdom, and Songs My Brothers Taught Me certainly avoids those stereotypes, giving us a rare look at an American community that isn't often represented in films of any sort in the modern day.
Whether this captures the Oglala Lakota accurately, perhaps only those within the tribe can say, but from my own outsider's perspective, it certainly feels like there is a lot of realness captured for the camera, even if the characters are fictitious and their situations concocted for the purpose of their stories. Zhao is helped here by her cast of actors, with many situations drawn upon their real lives, which brought the authentic qualities of their stories out for the filmmaker whose knowledge of Pine Ridge had been very scant going into it. We not only feel like these characters are real, but we also feel like they know each other, and that their roots together go back for generations through the hard times, and worse.
Zhao's somewhat slow-to-develop story is likely going to play almost exclusively to the indie-film crowd, as the lack of a cohesive narrative through-line and a minimalist approach to filming is not going to draw forth any commercial appeal. It's a film that rides more on capturing moments on camera, of exploring the beauty of South Dakota and the spirit of its people, who remain resolute in finding community and culture in a place there the knocks are hard and the opportunities are nearly nonexistent. A telling scene in which a high school teacher tries to encourage his seniors on starting to build toward a career beyond school draws forth the fact that many merely aspire to doing what they already do independent of anything they've learned in school: bull riding, ranching, and, in Johnny's case, boxing.
The pace and beauty captured on film will no doubt remind some of the work of Terence Malick, who also famously depicted South Dakota on film in 1973's Badlands. The quieter work of David Gordon Green, who has also been influenced by Malick, also comes to mind, especially in his film that looks at African-American youth, George Washington. Where the aesthetically alluring Songs My Brothers Taught Me differentiates itself and succeeds is in the capturing of a sense of truth for its subjects. We buy the story of Johnny and Jashaun, and we become genuinely interested in what happens to them, and, by the end of the film, we come to feel like we know them, their friends, their families, their neighbors, their lives. What it lacks in script it makes up for by letting those pictures tell the thousands of words necessary to tell a lyrical story about a time, a place, and a people. And a home. It's an understated film of subtle touches and challenging themes, but those who listen closely will hear the songs.
©2016 Vince Leo