Review: SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME, Confident, Measured And Mature

Editor, Asia; Hong Kong, China (@Marshy00)
Review: SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME, Confident, Measured And Mature
The debut feature from Beijing-born Chloe Zhao focuses on the unlikely subject matter of adolescent Lakota indians in South Dakota. Beautifully photographed and confidently directed, Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a notable first film, marred only by a rather cliched coming-of-age narrative, albeit in an original and intriguing setting.
High school senior Johnny Winters (John Reddy) has grown up on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and as graduation looms he is struggling to find direction in his life. A member of the Lakota indians, Johnny lives with his mother (Irene Bedard) and younger sister, Jashaun (Jashaun St. John), while his older brother does time in prison. Their situation is made worse when Johnny's father dies in a house fire. At the funeral we learn that this impressive patriarch had 25 children from nine different women, who all live on the reservation, but whom Johnny and his sister only have passing relationships with.
Johnny ekes out a living as a bootlegger - alcohol is illegal on the reservation - which sees him clash with more established gangs, as he scrambles to put money together so he can move to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Aurelia (Taysha Fuller), who is leaving for college. Clearly this is a sticking point between them, as neither has told their family about their plan.  


Songs My Brothers Taught Me works best when depicting life on the reservations, how timeless and isolated they feel, cut off from society, yet also free. There is very little interaction with the outside world. Christianity has taken a foothold, but the biggest bane of "Rez Life" is alcohol - officially banned yet a potent source of income, as well as trouble, for the community. One of Johnny's many half-brothers is a staunch anti-alcohol protester, while another hopes to make a living as a rodeo rider.
Zhao employs a cast of largely non-professional actors and one gets the impression that many are playing barely fictionalised versions of themselves onscreen. Many of the actors even use their real names and the interactions often feel improvised.
As a result, the performances vary in quality, but John Reddy's closed-off, monosyllabic portrayal is entirely appropriate for Johnny's troubled young soul. Likewise, Jashaun St. John's wide-eyed, curious and optimistic performance is the perfect counter-balance, seeing only the good things about their way of life, despite the struggles around her.
Joshua James Richards' breathtaking cinematography is a particular highlight of the film, and coupled with Johnny's melancholic voiceover gives the film an almost Terrence Mallick-like quality, in its depiction of the co-dependent relationship between these people and their natural surroundings. 
Zhao's directorial hand is confident, measured and shows a maturity uncommon in a first-time filmmaker. She takes her time telling her story, while allowing the incredible vistas time to breathe and be marvelled at. If only the script had been more daring or imaginative, rather than frequently falling back on tired coming-of-age staples, Songs My Brothers Taught Me could have risen beyond being a promising debut to being one of the year's best.
Review originally published during the Sundance Hong Kong Film Festival in September 2015. The film opens in select theaters in the U.S. on Wednesday, March 2, and will thereafter roll out across the country via Kino Lorber.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me

  • Chloé Zhao
  • Chloé Zhao
  • Irene Bedard
  • Dakota Brown
  • Cat Clifford
  • Jorge Dullknife
Screen Anarchy logo
Do you feel this content is inappropriate or infringes upon your rights? Click here to report it, or see our DMCA policy.
Chloe ZhaoEleonore HendricksIrene BedardJohn ReddyChloé ZhaoDakota BrownCat CliffordJorge DullknifeDrama

More from Around the Web

Around the Internet