Dir/scr: Chloe Zhao. US, 2015. 94 min.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me

Shot on a South Dakota reservation with a cast consisting almost entirely of Lakota Indians, Chloe Zhao’s debut feature is a painfully authentic series of flash portraits painting yet another failed attempt to break out of a socially vicious circle which imprisons everyone captured in its perimeter.

It becomes like a kind of compelling documentary report on things which should be inadmissible in the modern world, and yet they exist, in one shape or another, practically everywhere

Songs My Brother Taught Me is undertaken in a truly free spirit - which most independent cinema seems to have lost these days - and the script was reworked time and again during the shoot. It may not qualify as a movie entertainment in the full sense of the word, but it is most certainly an edifying picture of social stagnation at its saddest. Following a Sundance debut and further re-editing before a slot in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, Songs should enjoy a long festival career and possible wider interest, particularly in the social arena.

Johnny (John Reddy) is about to graduate high-school, and plans to leave the Pine Ridge Reservation where he has lived his whole life to go to LA with his girlfriend, Aurelia (Taysha Fuller). She’ll go to college, he’ll find some work or maybe even become a boxer, as he has always dreamed. But then his father, who happens to be also the father of half the kids on the reservation, having lived with and impregnated no less than nine different women before getting married, dies in a fire accident. Johnny now has to deal with the sad, mournful look in the eyes of his lively 12 years old sister, Jashuan (a winning performance by little Jashuan St. John), who can’t stand the idea of sharing her brother with an older girl and even worse, allow him to go away with her.

This is the narrative trickle around which Zhao embroiders a whole series of episodes, ranging between harsh realism and poetic use of landscape. Joined together, they offer an indelible image of a self-destructive society, stuck in the middle of nowhere, fully conscious of its own impotence and yet unable to even formulate the wish of becoming something better than all the generations before.

When kids in school are questioned about their choices for the future, it seems all they want to do is ride bulls in rodeos, just like their parents. That is, when they do have an answer at all. Alcoholics live between their ravaged houses and the prison where they are periodically dispatched after engaging in drunken brawls. They accept their defeat without even protesting.

Zhao, Chinese-born, US-educated filmmaker who lived for four years on the reservation before shooting her movie there, says she tried to understand what keeps these people stuck in the same place with the fate they have been dealt, despite the quagmire they live in. Her film, though it offers numerous options for political, cultural, sociological, religious and anthropological queries, may not offer any scientific answer to the question. Instead it becomes like a kind of compelling documentary report on things which should be inadmissible in the modern world, and yet they exist, in one shape or another, practically everywhere.

Production companies: Significant Productions

International sales: Fortissimo, info@fortissimo.ne

Producers:  Chloe Zhao, Angela Lee, Molly Asher, Nina Yang Bongiovi,  Forest Whitaker

Cinematography: Joshua James Richards

Editor: Alan Canant

Music: Peter Golub

Main cast: Jophn Reddy, Jashuan St. John, Taysha Fuller, Eleonore Hendricks, Travis Lone Hill, Cat Clifford, Irene Bedard