Songs My Brothers Taught Me (NR)

Drama 98 min. March 2, 2016
By Aaron Hillis
Vetted by Sundance and Cannes, and nominated for three Spirit Awards, Chloé Zhao's modestly rewarding dramatic portrait of Lakota Native Americans is the kind of poetically restrained, largely unscripted, ethnographically focused melancholia that's ubiquitous on the film-festival circuit (and often disappears after it). Offering a patient and soulful slice of life from the Badlands of South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the teasingly cryptic narrative -- perhaps a product of over-workshopping -- is tethered to the bond between high-school senior Johnny (Johnny Reddy) and his 11-year-old sister Jashaun (Jashaun St. John).

There's not much to do along these stark panoramas besides slug too much booze, get tattooed and dream of being a professional bull rider, so after the death of their rodeo-cowboy dad, Johnny makes poorly conceived plans to escape with his waitress girlfriend -- but what about Jashaun?

Johnny's perilous part-time gig as a bootlegger occasionally boosts the film's trickling pace with some tense territorial run-ins against older gangs, but isolation, alcoholism and dead-end cycles on the reservation have been depicted so frequently in cinema that more levity or invention would've been welcome. Yet the performances are undeniably authentic, the cinematography could make Terrence Malick stand to give a slow clap and sometimes a sensitive mood and evocative milieu are enough to sustain when there's barely a plot.
Chloé Zhao Irene Bedard, Taysha Fuller, Eleonore Hendricks, John Reddy, Travis Lone Hill, Jashaun St. John, Keanna Rowland Chloé Zhao Angela C. Lee, Chloé Zhao Kino Lorber

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