VOD film review: Songs My Brothers Taught Me
James R | On 10, Apr 2021
Director: Chloé Zhao
Cast: John Reddy, Jashuan St John, Irene Bedard, Eleonore Hendricks, Taysha Fuller
Is home a place that defines you, tees you up for the wider world or keeps you there for the future? That question sits at the heart of countless coming-of-age films, as young characters grapple with decisions about whether they should stay or escape the nest. Songs My Brothers Taught Me, though, explores that question in a home that’s rarely seen on screen: the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota.
It’s a surprising choice of subject and location for a debut filmmaker, but Chloé Zhao found herself visiting there when she was studying in New York, and that curiosity about reservation life and the reality of America plus a lack of filmmaking budget led to a natural exploration of the Lakota Indian community there. Natural is the key word: Zhao has a real gift for working with non-professional actors, and she roots her film in the lives of the people starring on screen. That brings an authenticity that makes for storytelling that’s as compelling as it is sincere.
John Reddy and Jashuan St John play John and Jashuan, a brother and sister who live with their mother, Lisa (Irene). John plans to leave them behind and move to LA with his girlfriend, Aurelia (Taysha Fuller), where she’ll go to college. But when their father – also the father of many others on the reservation – dies in an accident, John finds himself torn between a new life in a new home and sticking put, making ends meet by selling alcohol to neighbours.
At school, the pupils are asked what they dream their futures can be – apart from riding bulls, like John’s father – but Zhao teases out the way that the lifestyle around them is conducive to following in the footsteps of crime or alcoholism. It’s a sensitive, respectful exploration of the challenges of reservation life, one that doesn’t offer answers or solutions but raises thoughtful and poignant questions – questions that are framed against the gorgeously filmed Badlands backdrop.
The lyrical visuals juxtapose effectively with the quiet, documentary-like tone, just as Jashuan’s innocent presence brings warmth to the melancholic portrait of life on America’s fringes. The result is an impressive, handsome and superbly performed debut that’s slight but substantial enough to linger in the mind.