At some point this movie became completely engrossing. I was caught unaware and it took me a second to orient myself when it finished. It’s hard to imagine that a film as minimalist and impressionistic in its story as Songs My Brothers Taught Me could transport you so wholly into its world.
Usually when I’m caught up in movies like this and find myself thinking, “oh right, I’m in a movie theater, and on a date no less”, I’ve been transported to some sort of fantasy time or place. There might even be elves there. But it was a shock to have this experience while transported to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota where writer/director Chloé Zhao set her first feature film. It’s a decidedly real location for a film steeped in verisimilitude.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me follows the relationship between Lakota Sioux Johnny Winter (John Reddy) and his little sister Jashaun (JaShaun St. John) who both live with their mom (Irene Bedard, Pocahontas) on the reservation. Johnny has plans to leave and follow his girlfriend to Los Angeles at the end of the school year, something that would mean abandoning his sister to the seemingly inescapable cycle of alcohol and poverty that afflicts much of the community.
It would be easy to describe a lot of the plot points, that they learn of their estranged father’s accidental death and attend the funeral with his two dozen or so other children fathered with different women, that Johnny sells alcohol illegally on the reservation, that their mother has recently discovered religion, but it’s hard to convey the nuance that Zhao deftly employs to convey all of this.
The characters are so seamlessly real that I felt that same pang of loss that you get at the end of a good book, only this is coupled with an oh-so-real connection with the actors who portrayed them. Many of the cast are drawn from the actual Pine Ridge community which adds a somewhat uncomfortable level of realism.
I’m sure that everyone leaving the theater was thinking about what those kids are doing now. But it all adds to the how the movie sucked me in. The acting is fantastic, especially from the principle cast. And it all looks great. The aesthetics are natural and austere, reminiscent of a Terrence Malick film, employing a kind of free-spirited disembodied wonder to the photography, especially when capturing the Badlands of South Dakota.
Honestly though, I was hesitant to see the movie, not because I was skeptical of its quality, but because I was suspicious it would make me think and feel. It’s the same reason my Netflix cue is populated with films I know will be great, but I struggle to commit to watching because I could just as easily watch Executive Decision in bed again among an evening’s worth of crumbs.
The vast majority of my time is spent consuming mostly sensational escapist media, often with elements of fiction that provide useful barriers that don’t cast the strongest magnifying glass on my own privilege and comfort. It can be too easy to shy away from engaging in something different – but the reward here for seeing this in a theater if you can, is brilliant, especially feeling and thinking with a whole slew of strangers.
And that’s not to say the film is all dour. It’s actually very easy to watch, carried by the charm of the main actors and the grounded nature of the characters. The lean narrative might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you can muster the energy to put the 80s action stars who raised you on hold, Songs My Brothers Taught Me might just deeply speak to you too.