Chloé Zhao finished a fully realized script for a drama about teen suicide on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 2013, then lost all funding and proceeded to capture a hundred or so hours of footage using improvisational methods. Collaborating with many first-time actors, the director and talent created characters in different scenarios on an unnamed reservation. The results were edited into a narrative form and the resultant movie, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) wanders through images of wide open landscapes, ramshackle houses, and mobile homes, following Johnny Winters and his sister Jashaun, as Johnny prepares to move to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Aurelia. As her brother and his girlfriend plan their trip, Jashaun explores growing into adulthood and mourns the prospect of her brother’s absence.
Johnny (John Reddy) breaks horses, sells black market alcohol, smokes weed with his friends and is saving up to buy a truck. He sells his contraband on the turf of another group of bootleggers who confront him during one of his sales, they become aggressive with him, but they are interrupted before the scene escalates to violence. Jashaun (Jashaun St. John) dances to music from her radio in her small decorated room and hangs out with her older girlfriend, who likes her brother. She becomes friends and business partners with an artist, an ex-con who makes and sells clothes decorated with designs and slogans like “Rez Life”.
Early in the film, the siblings’ father dies in a fire and this serves as a catalyst for the kids to get in touch with their half-siblings from other mothers, and it also introduces their mother, who’s heartbroken at the news. Their mother Lisa Winters, played with grounded skill by actor and co-producer Irene Bedard, shows concern for her kids’ welfare, likes to party, and loves several men.
The narrative is visualized through Joshua James Richards’ cinematography, which is largely hand-held and documentary-style, moving from grand to intimate. He succeeded in composing the intimate in vast beautiful landscapes captured on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and the epic in the intimate shots of the characters’ homes and hangouts. In an interview, producer Forest Whitaker has said that the footage of characters and landscapes were in part what attracted Nina Yang and him to produce the movie.
Similar in tone and execution to movies such as Wendy and Lucy (dir: Kelly Reichardt, 2008) or Girlhood (dir: Céline Sciamma, 2014), the actors were allowed to experience the world of the movie and weren’t weighted down with explanatory dialogue. Scenes that at first seem simple show through action how, despite their experiencing hardships and uncertain times, the characters on this fictional reservation have strong social ties. Johnny’s and the bootleggers’ initial confrontation is halted by a neighbor who threatens to tell their families that they are quarreling, and this stops their fight, showing us the persistence of community bonds even in criminal situations. We learn about the effects and style of Lisa’s mothering when she tells a friend that her older son would rather be in jail than in her house, or through a scene where Johnny and Jashaun lay their heads on the dining room table while Lisa and a current boyfriend get drunk and celebrate.
In lesser hands, Johnny’s opening narration about how to break horses, but not run them too hard and preserve some of their wildness, would be reintroduced through narration or dialog again several times during the film, thus making clear to you that it’s a metaphor about reservation life. Instead, Zhao and editor Alan Conant allow the film to meander purposefully and Zhao lets the characters live their lives much in the same way that Kent Mackenzie’s classic The Exiles (1961) allowed his characters to party and play on a Friday night.
Both St. John and John Reddy are excellent as the siblings. Reddy is sure of himself, cool without being distant, and willing to show convincing emotions, such as when he buys the truck that will help his girlfriend and him leave the reservation. He turns up the radio as he drives his passage out of the Rez, beaming the great big smile of a teenager with his first vehicle. St. John is friendly, with eyes that convey her unacknowledged anxiety at the loss of her father and her brother, and when she gives into this sadness her performance is deeply affecting.
The cumulative effect is that we get a sense of these characters’ experiences through honest emotion and casual dialog. The movie avoids the potential tragedy-exploitation some filmmakers indulge in when representing underrepresented communities, showing the realities and issues that Native Americans face while avoiding the stereotype of magical-Indians-with-big-spirits-no-matter-what. The latter is often the opposite instinct for some filmmakers, against the mode of tragedy-exploitation. In Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Zhao and her team have created an emotionally compelling neo-realist portrait of a family and their community experiencing the stresses and pressures of post-colonial life.