With an older brother in jail and living with their single mother on Pine Ridge Reservation, Johnny and his sister Jashuan's lives develop new challenges when their absentee cowboy father ...
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With an older brother in jail and living with their single mother on Pine Ridge Reservation, Johnny and his sister Jashuan's lives develop new challenges when their absentee cowboy father suddenly dies. The loss prompts Johnny to strike out for Los Angeles, but would mean leaving behind his beloved sister.Written by
On a DVD extra, director Chloé Zhao said of the tight budget, light plotting, and neo-realist style casting, "We're capturing truth - because truth is the only thing we can afford." The production used mostly local residents as actors, and, according to Zhao, 80% of the story depicted is true to the actual life of the young man playing Johnny Winters (John Reddy). The house that Winters lives in is the house that Reddy lived in, and Reddy, also one of twenty-five children to one father, has many of his real family members playing members of his family. In fact, the man shown delivering the eulogy for Winters' father is Reddy's actual father. See more »
« Songs My Brothers Taught Me » invites you to discover life in a Native American reservation, namely Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. But definitely not in a superficial way: you will not find yourself on the side of a dusty road buying Indian trinkets and other souvenirs before having a couple of pancakes at the local restaurant and inserting a few coins into a slot machine at the local gambling house. No, this is real life indeed; and by real I mean drab, monotonous, without scope. Not that such a life is not worth living at all : the hero, Johnny Winters, a young Oglala Indian, does experience a few good times: in his final year of high school, in company with his thirteen-year-old sister Joshaun who is very fond of him and naturally with his beautiful girlfriend Aurelia.
But apart from social or personal intercourse, there is not much to do or to hope for in Pine Ridge. As far as employment is concerned, now that he is graduated, our young Native American struggles to get by while accommodating his mother and sister. A weak income earned from selling alcohol, not only a menial job but an illegal one into the bargain since drink is banned on the reservation's grounds. A better position is out of the question, the opportunities within a reservation being close to zero.The only hope for him to make a decent living is to get away from his place of birth. To this purpose he plans to accompany Aurelia to Los Angeles, where she is to further her studies. But that will mean leaving Joshaun behind. And the question is: will the sensitive little girl cope with the ordeal? And how will Johnny manage to square the circle?
As can be seen, a psychological side adds up to the sociological interest. Also the writer of the script, Chloé Zhao masters this dimension brilliantly. The characters (Johnny, his sister, his mother, the tattooist...) are as well drawn as is the aspect of life in the reservation. And the young Oglala's questions and expectations as well as his moral dilemma are examined in depth. Which makes this film a full immersion not only in the everyday life of a seldom shown environment but also a plunge into the psyche of several of its inhabitants. Very well interpreted by John Reddy as Johnny and the touching Joshaun St. John as his loving little sister, Chloé Zhao's movie could qualify as a masterpiece were it not a few defects: a rather disorganized, improvised approach and one or two tedious passages. But it is a first film after all and that should not be enough to deter you from watching this rare foray into a territory little seen on the big screen, thus getting to know worthwhile people you would be unlikely to meet in the flesh in real life.
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