Friday, February 04, 2022

Songs My Brothers Taught Me


Written, directed, and co-edited by Chloe Zhao, Songs My Brothers Taught Me is the story of two siblings who deal with changes in their lives as they embark on separate paths when one of them is set to leave the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The film is the study of a relationship between siblings as they deal with loss and other revelations as they both embark on their own individual lives. Starring John Reddy, Jashaun St. John, and Irene Bedard. Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a rich and evocative film from Chloe Zhao.

Set in the Lakota community at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the film revolves around two siblings who deal with the death of their father as they both embark on different paths with the eldest preparing to leave to go to Los Angeles. It is a film that explore two young siblings as they also deal with the fact that they have a bunch of half-siblings as well as another who is serving a prison sentence as they ponder what to do next. Chloe Zhao’s screenplay is largely straightforward though it doesn’t have much of a plot in favor of exploring the diverging paths of John Winters (John Reddy) and his younger sister Jashaun (Jashaun St. John) who both live with their mother (Irene Bedard) as they get the news that their father died in a fire as he lives in another house. John does bootlegging to make money for his mom and sister yet is eager to go to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Aurelia (Taysha Fuller) despite the fact that her family don’t approve of him. Jashaun learns about John’s plans to go to Los Angeles leaving her heartbroken as she befriends the recently-released tattoo artist Travis (Travis Lone Hill) where she helps him while he would make her traditional ceremonial robe.

Zhao’s direction is definitely mesmerizing in its presentation as it is shot on location at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and areas nearby. Notably in the fact that it is shot on many of the rural areas as well as some mountains and canyons nearby as there is a beauty to the locations as well as this sense of community that is somewhat disconnected from modern-day society. Yet, it is a community that is vital but with its dangerous and chaotic elements due to the fact that there’s some bootlegging and other criminal activities. Zhao’s direction include a lot of wide and medium shot to capture the vast look of the locations that include these gazing shots of scenes in the canyons and mountains where a lot of the characters spend time alone or in these scenes in rural areas where there is this air of danger. Notably as bootlegging alcohol is something that is done and there’s a rivalry where John deals with others who aren’t fond of him interfering with their business.

Editing the film with Alan Canant, Zhao would keep much of the editing to be straightforward with a few jump-cuts for some of the film’s intense scenes that involve bits of gang violence as it adds to this world that is unruly. Zhao’s usage of close-ups also play into the drama as it relates to Jashaun and her time with Travis where it is a friendship that is about legacy and tradition where the latter believes that Jashaun has a greater future since she does care about the heritage of the Lakota. Zhao also play into this air of uncertainty as it relates to the fact that John and Jashaun both have these other half-siblings who all shared the same father though many didn’t live with him as he was a complicated individual. Even as John deals with the fact that as much as he wants to leave the reservation, it wouldn’t leave him as it is something Jashaun knew already. Overall, Zhao crafts a touching yet intoxicating film about two Lakota siblings dealing with loss and their next step in life.

Cinematographer Joshua James Richards does incredible work with the film’s cinematography as its emphasis on natural lighting for many of the daytime interior/exterior scenes as well as the usage of available lighting including fire for the scenes at night. Production designer/special makeup effects artist Melissa Barnard does excellent work with the look of the houses in their interior setting including Travis’ home and the home where John and Jashaun live along with the look of the many tattoos Travis has. Visual effects supervisor Darren Orr does terrific work with the film’s visual effects as it is largely set dressing for a few bits including a key scene involving violence.

Sound designer Bob Edwards does amazing work with the sound in capturing the atmosphere of the locations and some of the parties as it is a highlight of the film. The film’s music by Peter Golub is wonderful for its low-key ambient-based score to play into the drama while music supervisors Kevin J. Edelman and Ben Sokoler cultivate a music soundtrack that largely consists of traditional Native American music, hip-hop, pop, metal, and country music.

The casting by Rene Haynes is brilliant as it feature some notable small roles from Kevin Hunter as John and Jashaun’s incarcerated sibling Kevin, Bernardo Rodriguez as a police sergeant who gives John and Jashaun’s mother the news, Eleonore Hendricks as a young white woman in Angie whom John is fascinated by, Allen Reddy as an elder who gives John his father’s old truck, Taysha Fuller as John’s girlfriend Aurelia who is thinking about going with him to Los Angeles, Travis Lone Hill as a tattoo artist who befriends Jashaun and decides to make her some traditional robes, and Irene Bedard in a superb small role as John and Jashaun’s mother Lisa who copes with grief through alcohol before finding something that would give her meaning. Finally, there’s the duo of John Reddy and Jashaun St. John in phenomenal performances in their respective roles as the siblings John and Jashaun Winters. Reddy’s performance as John is filled with some angst but it is largely restrained to play into the sense of loss this young man is dealing with as well as the uncertainty of what he wants to do when he goes to L.A. St. John’s performance is more understated as a young girl who isn’t just dealing with a man she barely knew but also the idea that her brother is leaving her alone with her mother as she becomes fascinated by her heritage with the help of Travis as a way to keep her brother home.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a sensational film from Chloe Zhao. Featuring a great ensemble cast, gorgeous visuals, intoxicating sound work, and its exploration of grief and growing pains in a remote community detached a bit from society. It is a film that doesn’t just explore two siblings dealing with revelations about their father and extended family but also going into different paths to find themselves and their roles in the community they live in. In the end, Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a phenomenal film from Chloe Zhao.

Chloe Zhao Films: The Rider - (Nomadland) – Eternals

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