“Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” the debut feature by Chloe Zhao, explores the complicated and emotionally fraught relationship between a community and their home. The film screened at AFI FEST on November 10th.
The film, shot and largely cast on location, follows two siblings living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the months immediately following their estranged father’s death — a famous rodeo cowboy who before his untimely death, had very minimal involvement in their lives. He spent much of his time drinking and impregnating other women, he had fathered 25 kids by nine or so “so-called wives.”
As the film begins the siblings learn their father’s just died a predictable drunkard’s death in an accidental fire. The story develops as a slice-of-life where we slowly get a picture of life on the reservation through Johnny (John Reddy) & Jashaun’s (Jashaun St. John) experiences.
The two rely on each other for support, having grown up without their father and a mother that is generally absent from view, Johnny takes over the role of caretaker. He sells bootlegged alcohol to make money. The cinematography reflects the emptiness felt throughout the reservation, with frequent shots of wide-open landscape. The cloud looming over the horizon is Johnny’s plans for his future—he wants to move to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Aurelia (Taysha Fuller) once they graduate to follow his dream of being a boxer while she attends college.
Though obviously torn over the decision to leave the reservation and his family, Johnny is aware that the options open to him if he stays on the reservation are limited. In the face of that future, Johnny begins bootlegging on a larger scale to save the money necessary for his move though it puts him in dangerous situations and on the radar of rival bootleggers. It also takes much of his time away from Jashaun.
With Johnny more and more absent, Jashaun begins spending time with a new friend, Travis (Travis Lone Hill), who’s been newly released from prison. In exchange for the promise that he’ll make her a pow-wow dress, Jashaun helps him with his small business selling clothing hand-painted with his designs.
After Johnny and Jashaun find out about their dad’s sexual escapades they start connecting with their half-siblings at various points in the film. Jashaun seeks out the half-brother who her father had lived with, and finds closure in a conversation about their father. Another half-brother seeks Johnny out and continually offers him a job in his stepfather’s garage to get him out of bootlegging. The alternative family bonds explored in the film illustrate at once the lack of parental presence yet also the strong sense of community on the reservation.
Eventually the confrontation between Johnny and the rival bootleggers comes to a head, leaving him beaten and his car torched, erasing his chances of getting to Los Angeles. In the end, Johnny doesn’t leave with Aurelia, and the film closes with him reflecting on the bonds that will leave him tied to the reservation, whether he stays or goes.
In an AFI fest Q&A, Zhao spoke about her experience as someone without a strong sense of home due to the fact that she moved around a lot as a child. She stated that she wanted to make a film that explored the ways in which a person’s home could be “freeing and trapping at the same time.” The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a particularly poignant setting for such an exploration; the reservation is the home that has been forced upon the community, and in many ways reflects the injustices that have been thrust upon Native American communities. Characters such as Travis reflect the incarceration cycle on the reservation, and the presence of bootleg alcohol throughout the film highlights the community’s struggle with alcoholism. It would have been easy for Zhao to only paint a negative picture of the reservation, but of course “home” is always more complicated than meets the eye.
Written and Directed By: Chloe Zhao
Starring: John Reddy, Jashaun St. John