Chloé Zhao’s modestly rewarding dramatic portrait of Lakota Native Americans is the kind of poetically restrained, largely unscripted, ethnographically focused melancholia that’s ubiquitous on the film-festival circuit (and often disappears after making the rounds there).
Offering a patient and soulful slice of life from the Badlands of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the teasingly cryptic narrative — perhaps a product of over-workshopping — is tethered to the bond between high school senior Johnny (Johnny Reddy) and his eleven-year-old sister, Jashaun (Jashaun St. John). There’s not much to do along these stark panoramas besides slug too much booze, get tattooed, and dream of becoming a professional bull-rider, so after the death of their rodeo-cowboy dad, Johnny makes poorly conceived plans to escape with his waitress girlfriend — but what about Jashaun?
Johnny’s perilous part-time gig as a bootlegger occasionally boosts the film’s trickling pace with some tense territorial run-ins with older gangs, but isolation, alcoholism, and dead-end cycles on the reservation have been depicted so frequently in cinema that more levity or invention would’ve been welcome.
Yet the performances are undeniably authentic, the cinematography could make Terrence Malick stand to give a slow clap, and sometimes a sensitive mood and evocative milieu are enough to sustain when there’s barely a plot.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me
Directed by Chloé Zhao
Opens March 2, Film Forum