Chloé Zhao’s directorial debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a quiet, sensitive indigenous coming-of-age story set as high school graduation nears on the Pine Ridge Reserve.
Like the Canadian film Fire Song, Chloé Zhao’s directorial debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me is also an indigenous coming-of-age story set as high school graduation nears — an especially important and emotionally fraught rite of passage for adolescents living on reserves.
Staying at home, where alcoholism and suicide are commonplace, could be a path to despair. Moving away could mean access to more opportunities. But there are strong ties to the land, to the culture, and to family, which are hard to break. Zhao peppers the film with wide, establishing shots — a reminder of the beauty of the surroundings and how isolated the characters are here, as just tiny specks in the image.
Unlike the Two-Spirited Shane in Fire Song, Johnny (John Reddy) needn’t move away to find an accepting community. He’s the sort of attractive, amiable alpha male who fits right in. But his current path of selling bootleg alcohol and getting into fights isn’t as promising as following his girlfriend Aurelia (Canadian actress Taysha Fuller) to college in Los Angeles. His main tie to the Pine Ridge Reserve where he grew up is his fourteen-year-old sister Jashaun (Jashaun St. John). Their older brother (Kevin Hunter) is in prison, and he strongly cautions Johnny to do what he can to get off the reserve.
Because their father was absent and their mother was usually drunk, Johnny practically raised his sister, protecting her from the adults who couldn’t act their age. They have a close and tender relationship. Whenever they’re in a room together, Zhao captures Johnny turning his head toward Jashaun, checking up on her, and smiling at her. On a drive to the Badlands, we watch Johnny carry her on his back in a wide two-shot. The glow of the afternoon light and the expanse of the gorgeous landscape make the shot idyllic. The thought of the two of them separated is heartbreaking.
Near the beginning of the film, their father dies in an accidental fire. At his funeral, they meet their 23 other half-siblings, from eight other mothers, for what seems like the first time. Seated around a campfire at night, they talk about their memories of their father, or how his absence defined their childhoods. For Johnny, it’s a reminder of everything he doesn’t want: a life defined by alcoholism and too early parenthood that could leave his kids abandoned the way he was. But for Jashaun, it’s an opportunity to expand her family and her ties to her community. She gains a handful of brothers.
From here, Jashaun’s and Johnny’s paths begin to diverge. The film shifts back and forth between their perspectives.. Shooting Jashaun’s interactions with her half-brothers with a handheld camera at eye level, with medium shots or closeups, Zhao keeps us intimately in Jashaun’s headspace. Jashaun becomes especially close to her half-brother Mo (Shamauri Hawkins), an ex-convict and tattoo artist and traditional clothes maker, whom she helps with his business — she’s good at math —in exchange for commissioning him for a power suit. But he can be careless with her, forgetting she’s there when he gets caught up with smoking pot with his friends. She also visits the rodeo where her half-brother is competing. Spending time with her half-brothers partly evolves out of curiosity, and it’s partly that she’s becoming more independent and finding her own path.
Meanwhile, Johnny is trying to earn enough money to buy a truck while planning his still-secret move. He and Aurelia are slowly getting more serious. They have sex, which Zhao shoots with frankness and warmth. The image of Johnny casually wiping the blood off his fingers and onto his sheets is really memorable. It helps to create that feeling of intimacy. Again, Zhao captures the couple in loving two-shots. Johnny’s obligations and ties are shifting. But he feels insecure about their future, even if he pretends that he isn’t. Aurelia still hasn’t told her family about their plans, and everyone’s questions about how he’ll find work and a life in LA when she is busy with school start to weigh on him.
Although Reddy is a first-time actor, Zhao struck gold with this Pine Ridge resident: he’s handsome, charismatic, and compelling. What makes Johnny such a revelation is how layered he is: tough on the outside when he needs to be, but kind and gentle with the people he loves. Even though we watch his criminal activity, he’s got a real fresh-faced innocence to him because he’s so open and sweet. He feels things deeply, which is why the thought of leaving his sister is one he tries to bury because it’s so hard to face.
As he prepares to leave, he makes one last pilgrimage to the Badlands, letting his hand glide against the rocks. Cutting between a closeup of his hand and a wide shot of the vast expanse of the Badlands, we feel how much his memories — we’ve watched him visit with both Jashaun and Aurelia – are etched into the rock. Ultimately, what he decides matters less than how he and Jashaun find their path in the world and how they maintain their unshakeable bond.
More films about indigenous people
Review of Fire Song
Interview with Adam Garnet Jones about Fire Song
Interview with Chloé Leriche about Before the Streets, the first film in Atikamekw