In the Lakota reserve of Pine Ridge, a man burns to death in his house. His memorial service gathers what seems like half the community; according to an old friend, he fathered 25 children, all of them teenagers or young adults. They discuss the local Indigenous Christian temperance movement at a bonfire, over beer and joints. Among them, a boy and his 11 year-old sister stay on the sidelines and watch quietly – their father’s death affects them just as much as everybody else, they just don’t realize how much yet.
There’s something almost mythological about Karl Winters; unseen but spoken of with wistful reverence, he’s like a deity whose death by fire lays bare the curses and sins suffered by his children. Certainly, Chloé Zhao gives their games and escapades in the badlands an almost biblical sense of majesty. Call it bucolic neorealism; where tight, handheld shots of a largely non-professional cast blend in seamlessly with imagery that wouldn’t look out of place in a Terrence Malick film – medium shots following characters walking in fields with occasional lens flares provided by the sun intruding at the top of the frame, camera swirls around an embracing couple with nothing but music on the soundtrack… And then there are the establishing shots, with their permanently overcast skies overlooking the land like a meteorological embodiment of the characters’ hopes and fears.
It would be tempting to see Zhao’s style as a means to make the pain and frustration experienced by Johnny, Jashaun and their mother Lisa that of all American Indian peoples. Indeed, Pine Ridge’s bloody history, from the Wounded Knee Massacre to the 1973 siege, almost reads like a catalogue of oppression and hardship faced by Indigenous populations of the American continent. Yet to interpret Songs My Brothers Taught Me as an exposé on the American Indian experience would be to miss the forest for the trees; the historical genesis of its characters’ condition is important, but it does not define them.
Over the course of the story, two paths unfold: That of aspiring boxer Johnny, who makes money smuggling alcohol back and forth from Whiteclay to Pine Ridge in service of his Springsteenian dream to leave for Los Angeles with his girlfriend Aurelia, and that of his 11 year-old sister Jashaun, who strikes a friendship with recently released ex-con Travis, agreeing to help him sell his handmade & second-hand clothes in exchange for a pow wow dress. As Johnny’s bootlegging activities attract the wrong people’s attention and Jashaun’s friend gradually falls back into his old ways, the two siblings’ respective paths collide in a subtly impressive editing sequence that combines Johnny’s fateful encounter with thuggish competitors with Jashaun’s ride home from a nightmarish rave accompanied by the same cop that found her father’s body.
As enunciated above, the plot seems like a pretty clear-cut tale of trying to escape one’s roots vs. reconnecting with them, but the impeccable attention Zhao pays to her actors’ every unconscious look and gesture reveals something more profound beneath: An urgent need to define oneself by our connections to others. Whether it’s Johnny usurping Aurelia’s family conversation over her departure by announcing his intent to accompany her or Jashaun witnessing Travis drunkenly rapping about his own inability to escape his condition, both siblings are trying to form connections in order to keep on existing and evolving. Jashaun listens where Johnny imposes or resists.
This understated impulse for communication and connection spans the entire film, linking Johnny’s distribution of liquor in precarious houses full of crying children and morbidly obese adults to anti-alcoholism sermons attended by his mother, and in doing so transcending any TV documentary miserabilism such scenes might evoke to reach the kind of matter-of-fact poignancy that eludes many films made by more seasoned directors.
With respectful distance – even in the closest shots – and discreet compassion, Zhao unmasks that impulse and associates it with the larger need to preserve cohesion as a family, as a community and as a people. Giving further spiritual meaning to her scenes of pastoral respite, Zhao places God – and the search thereof – as a driving and unpredictable force behind that struggle, vividly illustrated in the scene of Karl’s funeral, where traditional songs sung by Lakota nation representatives accompany mourners coming out of a lily-white Christian church; like the reeds from Johnny’s closing narration, his people bend to the wind so as not to get blown away. Rather than submission to white western cultural supremacy, Zhao suggests this conciliation of Christianity with Indigenous traditions to be a powerful system of endurance and resistance.
That isn’t to say Songs My Brothers Taught Me presents a rose-tinted vision of religion or spirituality. Further exploring the link between family and community, Zhao acknowledges the manner in which they come into conflict through Jashaun’s reaction to her brother’s plan to leave, the discovery of which (point-of-view shots of Johnny and Aurelia) curiously evokes someone spying on their unfaithful lover. But nowhere is this conflict more succinctly expressed than when, in the film’s most harshly poignant line, Lisa’s imprisoned eldest son warns her not to “make God another man you abandoned your children for”. While perhaps not exactly feminist, that single line offers a more devastating denunciation of the idea of God as a patriarch than all the trendy New Atheist slogans in the world, and Irene Bedard’s wordless reaction to it provides one of the film’s acting highlights.
One of the story’s subplots involves Johnny’s budding friendship with his aging partner-in-crime’s white girlfriend Angie. The half-repressed sexual tension lays ground for subtle callbacks to western romanticism of American Indians; when Johnny helps Angie with her dart-throwing skills by adjusting her aim while standing close behind her, their body language and positions echo and gender-flip the Avatar image of the native woman helping the white man shoot an arrow. In a later scene, Johnny removes a gutted game’s heart and jokingly offers it to Angie for eating. As she has everything he wants from her here and now, Johnny feels no need to impose his will on her. Yet when she acts by attempting to kiss him, his response is one of passive resistance. Although there may arguably be more ingredients for a fulfilling relationship with her than with Aurelia, Johnny remains faithful. Whether it is because he is genuinely in love with Aurelia or because he cannot separate her from the escape she offers remains ambiguous. It certainly supplies one of the film’s most politically evocative shots: A young American Indian man apologizing for not returning a white woman’s kiss while both stand in front of a bloody gutted animal.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me is thoroughly involving from start to finish, humble yet confident, carried by raw, magnificently unaffected performances – particularly from Jashaun St. John as her eponymous character. Like Karl Winters, the absentee father who abruptly returns into his children’s lives by dying, it affects us surreptitiously, leaves an impression that doesn’t instantly register but instead grows over time until it our connection to the world is revitalized.