Songs My Brothers Taught Me: The BRWC Review – This drama film centers on the inhabitants of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, mainly Johnny Winters (John Reddy) and his family. Johnny spends his days breaking horses and boxing, while caring for his sister Jashaun Winters (Jashaun St. John) and his mother Lisa Winters (Irene Bedard), the latter of whom struggles with alcoholism.
Johnny hopes to one day leave the reservation and move to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Aurelia Clifford (Taysha Fuller). In order to secure enough money, Johnny has resorted to illegally selling alcohol on the reservation. However, Johnny feels conflicted about leaving his home, family and friends, especially his sister. The remainder of the film follows Johnny as he wrestles with the tension between his desire to explore life beyond the reservation, and his fear of abandoning those closest to them, while also looking at the hardships, joys, and bonds of the people on the reservation.
Director/writer/co-editor Chloé Zhao has been lauded for her naturalistic filmmaking style that blurs the line between documentary and fiction. Many of the actors featured here are either playing themselves or fictionalized versions of themselves inspired by real people, places, and events. Even in the case where established actors like Irene Bedard appear in the film, the naturalistic approach carries through. This deliberate use of largely non-actors and real places and experiences allows viewers to truly connect to the world and people of the film, and lends the film a level of authenticity not often afforded to other fictional films. The relationship and chemistry between St. John and Reddy is particularly poignant and moving.
Zhao also shows her complete commitment to authenticity not only in terms of acting, but in terms of the story that is told. While the narrative is scripted, as stated above the use of real people and places largely removes feelings of manipulation. The film unflinchingly tackles hard topics like the pervasiveness of alcoholism and economic strife on the reservation, and the lasting impact of U.S. policies on the Native-American community. At the same time, the film never feels like an exploitation piece. Though Zhao focuses on the struggles many of these inhabitants face, in equal measure she celebrates these people and their culture. This is done in a variety of ways, whether it is through the showcase of song, chants and artwork, or allowing viewers to hear honest conversations between people about their communal bond and strength due to their shared experiences.
People in the film talk about shared heartbreak over the generational pain their people have experienced, their hopes for the future and so on. Zhao’s determination to almost live in and show the lives of these people in all their facets, in order to bring the audience into their world in a naturalistic way goes a long way in generating empathy in viewers for the people featured. That being said, the lack of conventional plotting or character arcs may lead to a feeling of a slower pace than some are used to when it comes to fictional films.
Another aspect of the film that helps accomplish this naturalistic and poetic feel is the cinematography by Joshua James Richards. For the most part, Richards opts for a handheld camera which solidifies the feeling that the camera and audience are invited visitors into this very rich and defined world. Richards and Zhao collaborate in such a way that every frame feels perfectly composed in terms of light, depth and composition in order to achieve its maximum effect and potential. This is particularly true of scenes taking place outdoors which take advantage of the natural beauty of the landscapes around the reservation which highlight the people’s connection to the land and the animals that inhabit it. These moving images are accompanied beautifully by Peter Golub’s gentle piano and string score which also lends to the poetic nature of the film.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a beautifully shot film that honestly portrays the realities of the lives of a group of people in all of its hardship and also its beauty. Featuring engrossing performances from both established actors and non-performers alike, stunning cinematography and nuanced direction, this film is not to be missed.
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