Director/writer Chloé Zhao’s debut feature “Songs My Brother Taught Me,” empathetically delves into the confusion and longing that Johnny (John Reddy), 18, and his adored and adoring younger sister, Jashaun (Jashaun St. John), Lakotas living on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, experience during the summer following his last year of high school. The performances by the two young, non-professional actors are pitch-perfect and the small details of their lives and its background, the windy, empty, beautiful Bad Lands/Great Plains, are evocatively shot.
The death of their absentee cowboy father, Carl Winters, an admired rodeo bull rider who carelessly sired 25 children with nine women, highlights the siblings’ perpetually difficult relationship with their troubled mother, who long prioritized her men over her children.
Johnny, lean and muscular, chafing at the limits of life on the Rez is finding a way out and plans (without much of a plan, although he’d like to be a boxer) to follow his academically gifted and ambitious girlfriend, Aurelia, to college in LA. He continues to sell alcohol (which is off-limits on the Rez, where alcoholism is rampant), dangerously trespassing on the territory of other young men, to afford a battered truck.
“Almost 12,” curious and watchful, Jashaun is finding a way into what she has–her heritage, her community. She befriends Travis (Travis Lone Hill) a lavishly tattooed fiber/folk artist (and poet) who makes clothes, baby blankets, toys. Obsessed with green and the number 7, he sees a future in (and for) Jashaun. He tells her, “Crazy Horse said that everything all seemed to end at Wounded Knee but it will all begin again with the seventh generation, and that’s you.”
“Songs My Brother Taught Me” will open on Wednesday, March 2 at Film Forum for a two-week run. Chloé Zhao and Jashaun St. John will be in person at the 7:00 pm show. Zhao and producer Mollye Ash will be in person at the 7:00 pm show on Friday, March 4.
I asked Chloé (who spent four years making her film) how she got to the Pine Ridge reservation, and replying to a question she’d obviously fielded often, joked, “I took a plane.” Playing along, I followed up with, “How did you find Pine Ridge?” “I have GPS.” But of course she understands the question–why would a Beijing-raised, NYU film school grad, make a a film about Lakota living on the Pine Ridge Reservation? “I like to make work about things I don’t know” (using beauty, close attention and compassion). Zhao’s next film is about homeless kids in the Great Plains.