Songs My Brothers Taught Me

Songs My Brothers Taught Me ★★★★

The debut feature film from director Chloé Zhao tells the tale of a Lakota youth who becomes torn between his yearning to get away from his impoverished reservation and the sense of responsibility towards his younger sister. The narrative has a clean-limbed quality with the slightest amount of exposition that feels so restrained and naturalistic that it often provides it with an almost quasi-documentary tone of what life is like on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation. 

As with Zhao's The Rider, the film is anchored on a protagonist that discovers themselves at a crossroads, in this case, the life of sensitive but also quite temperamental high schooler Johnny (John Reddy). It boasts a talented cast of amateur actors while providing an honest portrayal of despair and beauty. Directionless Johnny has no strong ambition in life other than to follow his dynamic and ambitious girlfriend, Aurelia (Taysha Fuller), when she finally leaves the reservation to further her education at a college in Los Angeles. 

He begins saving up money to purchase a dilapidated pickup truck from selling bootleg alcohol, prohibited on the reservation, to the local drunks, which he intends to use to drive his girlfriend to California. While the customary topics, alongside the alcoholism, are present, such as family instability and generational poverty, there are no emotional manipulations that accompany the storyline while observing the Lakota teenagers struggling to grow up in a fractured environment.

Zhao nonjudgmentally glides into the world of characters located within one of the most oppressed social groups in America with sincerity, quietly examining their lives as they suffer terrible hardships. Zhao offsets the depressing reality of the marvellous indigenous population nearly wiped out by American capitalism with views of the enchanting mountains, fields and animals. While Songs My Brothers Taught Me is not explicitly political, there's no question over the integrity or compassion of Chloé Zhao.

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