Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015)

Zhao’s naturalistic debut feature, shot largely at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, is part ethnographic, part poetic take on the communities living on the land.    

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Review #2,159

Dir. Chloe Zhao
2015 | USA | Drama | 94 mins | 1.78:1 | English
M18 (passed clean) for sexual scene and coarse language

Cast: John Reddy, Jashaun St. John, Irene Bedard
Plot: High school senior Johnny is about to leave the Pine Ridge Reservation when his rodeo-cowboy father suddenly dies. Reluctant to leave his 13-year-old sister behind, Johnny must face an inner conflict standing in the way of his departure.
Awards: Nom. for Camera d’Or (Cannes); Nom. for Grand Jury Prize (Sundance)
International Sales: Fortissimo Films

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Minority Communities, Home
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

With Chloe Zhao deservedly making waves with her Oscar-winning third feature, Nomadland (2020), one has to go back to her debut feature, Songs My Brother Taught Me, to see how she first started.  Well, from the looks of it, she seems to have had her cinematic DNA imprinted since day one. 

Already working with cinematographer-cum-partner Joshua James Richards then, Zhao’s naturalistic filmmaking style very much fits the small, intimate stories that she likes to tell. 

Filming wide open spaces with seeming ease and poetry, largely at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the duo focuses on a family whose father recently died. 

The two children, one a teenage boy who longs to move to L.A. to follow his girlfriend, and the other, his younger sister who relies on him for support, are at the centre of the loosely-plotted narrative. 

“Nah, that’s alright. Glad you found hope, though. Just don’t make God another man that you abandoned your children for.”

The title of the film seems to suggest that we are viewing the story from the sister’s perspective, but really, it feels more like the converse is true. 

However, from the bigger picture, Songs My Brother Taught Me is really about the communities at large—the people, mostly folks with Native American lineage, who struggle to make ends meet.  Alcoholism is also rampant and a big problem. 

Part ethnographic, part dramatised, Zhao’s work is ultimately about what ‘home’ means to these people—is everything they need right here with them or are they stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty?  Nature seems to provide them with refuge but is it enough to weather the storms in life?

Grade: B+




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