Saturday, February 27, 2016

Native-American teens today fill Chloé Zhao's do-we-stay-or-leave-the-reservation movie, SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME

When you are "breaking" a horse, explains our Native-American hero, Johnny, at the beginning of the new independent film, SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME, you should "leave some 'bad' in it. They'll need it to survive out here." Initially intimate but spacious, with breath-taking vistas of the badlands of South Dakota, and extremely low-key, this new movie from Chloé Zhao (born in China, now living in the U.S.) is her first full-length piece, one that took four years to complete, as she lived & worked on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Those four years evidently helped give the movie the kind of authenticity that is not easily faked, as Ms Zhao (shown at right) shows us in leisurely, slow-moving fashion, the world of the kids who are "stuck on the res." The movie shows us their lives -- with their family and friends, at school, in church, at work and play, in love and sex -- without any expository or narrative comment, and we see how they must fit into a hugely downsized and circumscribed culture.

The filmmaker never stoops to proselytizing or special pleading. She doesn't have to. The lives we see on display make their point lucidly enough. She uses non-actors who pretty much appear to be playing themselves (or a reasonable facsimile). While this makes them seem authentic, it also diminishes the drama and much of the specificity that a good actor might bring to the role. (That's John Reddy, above on horseback, who plays our hero, Johnny.) Johnny's younger sister, Jashaun (Jashaun St. John, below) is the other character we learn most about, along with his girlfriend, who's soon to leave the res for college.

Perhaps the most unusual character is the tattoo artist/clothing designer who befriends Jashaun and is partial to the number 7. The movie generally avoids melodrama (except for one revenge-of-a-rival-gang scene), sticking to its low-key, slow pace. Once the film, around the halfway point, begin to lose any edge at all, it seems to turn generic in both its dialog and situations. At this point, the slow pace simply sinks things. (I can't remem-ber another film during which I consulted my watch as often as here.)

Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a well-intentioned movie that achieves its goals well enough to be successful on the "intentions" front. Visually, too, the movie succeeds (the framing is quite good: cinematography by Joshua James Richards). Sound-wise, perhaps not. It may have been the quality of the screener disc I watched, the lack of enunciation by the actors, or the sound design itself, but I missed a certain amount of the dialog along the way and felt periodically frustrated.

Another odd thing: our lead character's narration at both the beginning and end of the film sounds far too intelligent, poetic and writerly to be coming of this young man's mind or mouth. The rest of the dialog we hear from him is on a completely different level. But that, too, I suspect, is part of the "well-intentioned-ness" of this not uninteresting but likely to be overpraised film. Songs My Brothers Taught Me, from Kino Lorber and running 94 minutes, has its U.S. theatrical premiere this coming Wednesday, March 2, at Film Forum in New York City. Click here then scroll down to see all upcoming playdates, with cities and theaters listed.

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