It strikes me that I’ve been a bit withering about filmmakers taking inspiration from Terrence Malick over the years as indicative of some kind of creative rut, but there are ways to do it well (generally, ditch the poetic voiceover), and it seems to me that Songs My Brothers Taught Me is both its own film and also channels the best of Malick — which is to say the gorgeous cinematography which presents characters in a close relationship to a spectacular natural world. The drama itself focuses on the residents of a Native American reservation in South Dakota, where alcohol is banned but problems still persist. Most of the characters have the same names as the actors, suggesting perhaps that a lot of them are not indeed trained as such, and so there’s a natural edge to John Reddy’s laconic performance as lead character Johnny Winters (some of the best films about teenagers are at their strongest when their characters say less rather than more). His father has just died, and in coming together for the funeral you get the sense of the many connections within the reservation, as it turns out Johnny and his little sister Jashaun (JaShaun St. John) are only two of 25 or so siblings from multiple different mothers. Johnny is caught up in a bit of illicit alcohol trafficking, and smokes plenty of pot, but really he’s just a normal kid trying to make the best of bleak opportunities. The narrative proceeds in fragments and ellipses, as Johnny decides to leave for the West Coast to join his girlfriend, but the drama is largely in creating a thumbnail portrait of the reservation, from the prison where his brother lives, to his mother’s hard-fought struggle for family stability, to the ex-cons trying to make a living selling by the roadside (with whom Jashaun strikes up an unlikely but sweet friendship), to the school where in one memorable scene students struggle to imagine their futures while petting a variety of dangerous-looking animals. However you respond to the film’s slow-building atmosphere, there’s a lot to like in this.
Director/Writer Chloé Zhao 趙婷; Cinematographer Joshua James Richards; Starring John Reddy, JaShaun St. John; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Saturday 17 October 2015.