It seems first-time feature director Chloé Zhao has produced a Terrence Malick film that’s better than any of Malick’s recent films. It’s easy to note similarities in Songs My Brothers Taught Me with a film like Badlands for its location in the real Badlands of South Dakota (although Badlands was actually filmed in Colorado). Shot with an eye toward the sky by cinematographer Joshua James Richards, Songs often unfolds outdoors, against gorgeous exteriors during the magic hour of twilight. But on another level, the film also has a casual ease of story that never feels like a task to follow.
Featuring mostly non-actors, Zhao captures relaxed and genuine performances of clearly fleshed out characters that feel so natural, you almost wonder if you are watching a documentary. In a way, her film is a documentary, presenting life on an Indian reservation driven by experiences based on the actors’ true life stories, as revealed in her director’s notes. The film follows Johnny Winters (John Reddy), who has just finished high school and faces the rest of his life with little direction except for a pull to leave his small home on the reservation where he lives with his mother (Irene Bedard) and little sister, Jashaun (Jashaun St. John). This single-parent family were a casual part of the life of a deceased father who may have sired as many as 25 children on the reservation, and their solitude is felt profoundly in their quiet pain. The one who really seems to suffer it most acutely is the mother. It bears noting that Bedford, the biggest name actress in the film besides Taysha Fuller who plays Johnny’s girlfriend, also feels as she pushes her performance more heavy handedly than the non-actors. The film thrives on its natural quality. It’s subtlety and plainspoken beauty, though often laced by tragedy, is the film’s biggest strength.
Zhao captures the pull for the reservation’s residents to leave in what feels like a grim outlook of Johnny’s life, who makes a meager living by selling booze, which is illegal on the reservation. However, beyond the film’s narrative, Songs‘ atmosphere is buoyed by mystical moments of suggestion captured in several extraordinary images in the expansive Badlands on the border of the reservation that Johnny often ventures out too. It’s an eye that shows great familiarity with its subjects and the location, so it’s no surprise when, in her director’s notes, Zhao reveals that she spent four years shooting this film on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The film’s story unfolds as organically as it was shot. But don’t call it slow-paced. It’s warm, earthy and natural, speaking toward the soul of Native Americans, a people who were once deeply connected to the land before they were marginalized by colonizers and the horrors of Manifest Destiny. The film never has a preachy quality, however. It’s poetically driven by sheer empathy shot with a sensitive, inviting eye by Zhao that will move viewers to their core.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me runs 94 minutes and is not rated (trigger warning: you’ll see the gutting and skinning of a dead deer, but that’s life for these people). It opens today, March 25, exclusively in our South Florida area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and a bit further north in Lakeland at the Polk Theater. For other theaters across the U.S. visit the film’s official website. Kino Lorber provided the images in this review as well as an on-line screener link for the purpose of this review.