Chloé Zhao's debut is set on Pine Ridge reservation where children try to survive as adults lie wasted around them.
The Pine Ridge Native American reservation in South Dakota is a wilderness. Snakes are idly toyed with by teens in classrooms, fast-food is served in a faded shack that is one of the only venders open for business. Children have more purpose than adults, many of whom are always high. As in Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, there is the thick atmosphere brewed by the combination of abundant nature and human torpor. Youthful spirit is a beacon and a tonic and youthful spirit is debut director, Chloé Zhao’s entry point to the story.
Jashaun is 11. Her brother Johnny is in his late teens. Jashaun St John and John Reddy who play them were, like the rest of the cast, born on bred on reservations. Their shared experiences helped Zhao to work up the story.
Mother is a sorrowful husk. Their other sibling, Kevin, is in jail. Johnny wants to leave for LA with his girlfriend, Aurelia, the smartest girl in town. To be able to afford this he takes the easiest route available to a young entrepreneur in these surroundings: buying and selling bootleg booze. It’s a paradox that in order to leave behind a place contaminated by alcoholism he enters into its ecosystem.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Jashaun and Johnny are close and spend a lot of time kicking about in prairies and canyons, exchanging affectionate looks and communing with the vast beauty of their homeland. What makes Songs My Brother Taught Me engaging is the complex tone that folds in appreciation for Pine Ridge. It’s just clearly also showing the quiet suffering that reigns behind closed doors. The most haunting scene shows a prematurely old mother sagged down on her sofa, barely able to move as Johnny delivers hooch, despite her children bawling. This defeated vision is not lingered over by Johnny, who is in and out. Thanks to this film, however, the pain of her alcoholism is plain to see.