Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015)

CHLOE ZAO

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB 

USA, 2015, , , , , Screenplay by Chloé Zhao.  Cinematography by .   Produced by , , , , Chloé Zhao.  Music by Production Design by Film Editing by , Chloé Zhao.  Gotham Awards 2014.   Independent Spirit Awards 2015.

Chloe Zao makes a startling feature debut with this powerful tale of a family beset on all sides by challenges.  Johnny is growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the American southwest, the head of a household whose father has long been absent and whose older brother is in jail, leaving him to look out for his mother (, one of the few professional actors in the cast) and his younger sister Jashaun.  They find out that their father, who had a number of children with other women, has passed away, and attending the service and getting in touch with their estranged siblings puts life in a different perspective for both Johnny and Jashaun: his girlfriend is leaving to attend university in Los Angeles and he plans to go with her, hoping to leave behind all the vulnerabilities that come with reservation life, while Jashaun becomes more interested in finding out both about her heritage as well as the culture of rodeo cowboys that her father was part of (which is also as a way to deal with her fear of her brother going away).  Zao has the ability to create situations that have documentary-level realism, using real people in situations similar to their own real lives and making something that feels as convincing as it does dramatically compelling, while at the same time avoiding the kinds of emotional exploitation that usually come with outsiders exploring the lives of indigenous characters.

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