BrandonHabes’s review published on Letterboxd:
Chloé Zhao’s feature debut is as confident as Malick’s BADLANDS. It shares the same delicate mix of harsh realism and poetic impressionism. The voice-over is dreamy and artful. The characters are quiet, subdued, and inward-looking. There’s a spiritual connection to the open landscape and the immensity of frontier skies bathing in watercolor sunsets. Most tellingly, the film is overflowing with evocative photography of the natural world, a restrained sense of pacing, and a soulful gaze pointed at a self-destructive and desolate society. The comparisons to Malick feel unavoidable, and in all honesty, I think I actually prefer the lyrical shape and earthbound quality of Zhao’s work over Malick. Blasphemy, I know. I like Malick, don’t get me wrong, but he’s nowhere near as empathetic as Zhao. He’s way up in the platonic ethers and has that tendency to hang back and let his stories unfold in the skies, whereas Zhao is unapologetically on the fringe of the earth and is more grounded in the soil. What can I say, I’m a bigger fan of Aristotle than Plato :)
After completing her masterful American West Trilogy, I have to say I love how ethnographically centered her stories are towards the dispossessed and left-behind. Chloé really humanizes her characters living at the margins of society, and I love how she casts nonprofessional actors playing versions of themselves as a way to lift her films into the realm of majestic realism. SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME is no exception.
The film’s gentle drift will echo deep into THE RIDER and NOMADLAND. It’ll pave the way for unhurried characters, stuck in the middle of nowhere, to contemplate the trauma of their past and the connection they have for the wild open road. Zhao’s debut is the epitome of the trilogy’s cultured center, focusing on the marginalized experiences of indigenous non-actors living on the badlands of South Dakota. Native American song, dance and ceremony are embroidered into the heart of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a tale about a local community ravaged by alcoholism, clouded by broken, illegitimate families, yet tempered by the dream to one day escape it all and move to sunny-side Los Angeles.
I was really moved by the tragic world-building on display. Scores of disconnected brothers, sisters and half-siblings wander the land not really knowing who their father is, a man who supposedly sired all of them by nine “so-called wives.” In the wake of his unexpected death, the community is left in tatters. A troubled mother tries to mend the broken familial shards around her, with one of her sons in jail, another slinging an illegal trade, and her youngest daughter steeling herself against the pains and confusions of a fractured family life.
As mentioned, the bane of alcoholism devastates the community and leads to domestic violence and other ills, creating an itch in some of the more aspirational kids to break out of the town’s boundaries and dream about life out West. The film is really good at conveying the tension between leaving a traditional culture and family, and feeling tethered to the emotional bonds that make up that culture and family. Zhao captures the strife through layered impressions rather than building a traditional story, but there’s just enough vivid beats to make the poetry of her images connect in a totally soulful way. Really, really dug this one.