A longing for independence, direction, and a youthful exhilaration are at the crux of Chloé Zhao piercingly sad yet stunningly beautiful debut feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me. As it’s lyrical handle suggest, there’s an austere approach to Zhao’s portrait of life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and the story is largely told via 11-year-old Jashawn Winters (Jashaun St. John, who’s luminous in the role), and a few of her foolhardy older brothers. Using a cast of largely non-actors and shot almost entirely on location, Zhao’s film sighs with authenticity.
The pared-down plot is more like a pearl-on-a-string series of vignettes set after Jashawn and brothers have learned of the loss of their absentee father, a drunkard and former rodeo hero who died in a housefire. At his funeral it’s revealed that her father had 25 kids with 8 different women, and no one really bats a lash at this revelation.
Of her many siblings, they aren’t all on the Rez, more than a couple are in prison, and Jashawn’s closest bond is with her teenaged brother Johnny (John Reddy), who, though he hasn’t yet told her or their mother, is planning on moving to Los Angeles with his girlfriend when school is finished.
It’s rare that marginalized characters such as these get their own film, and that theirs is told with little lachrymose masquerading or bogus platitudes is refreshing. Yes, Pine Ridge is ghettoized, poverty is very explicit, as is rampant alcoholism, drug abuse, and hand-wringing Christianity, but it’s never deceitfully depicted or unconscientious.
And better yet, Zhao exhibits equanimity by spasmodically allowing the landscape to overwhelm her story; the redding sky at dusk, the stooped mountains frisked with clouds, the tremble of sage brush, all make mundane but magical spectacle.
Zhao’s mannered and languorous coming-of-age angle, mostly what Songs My Brothers Taught Me is about, is chillingly austere at times, and somehow never exploitative. A sex scene between Johnny and his girlfriend, Aurelia (Taysha Fuller), could have been credulous in less capable hands, but here is handled both delicately and pointedly.
There’s a sensual reality to these characters, and a social context that’s praisable, too. Visually, and insularly Songs My Brothers Taught Me is ethereal, impressive, occasionally light as air, and an evocative and honest representation of post-colonial Indian life, it’s also something of a prize.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)