“Your brother isn’t going to be around to protect you.”
With non-actors leading the film, there’s always the chance for it to come off as amateurish. Instead, Songs My Brothers Taught Me strikes that delicate mix of quiet, world-weariness and the anticipation of something better.
Johnny (John Reddy) and his sister Jashuan (Jashaun St. John) live with their single mother on Pine Ridge reservation; their eldest brother is in jail. When they’re long-gone cowboy father dies their lives take a dramatic shift prompting Johnny to ponder leaving for Los Angeles, the caveat being that his little sister would be left behind.
Director and writer Chloe Zhao isn’t so much concerned about the dialogue and instead allows the visuals and setting to tell the story and convey the overall theme of being trapped in a hometown and lifestyle unbefitting to the life you wish for. The ranch lifestyle is a long and laborious one, and Johnny’s characterization is defined by this forced upon daily exhaustion. More so however is the nature of his home life, where he must deal with an absentee father, the adoption of the head of the household mentality with his brother in jail, and a young sister to care for. All the while, he carries the weight of aspirations that extend far past the town’s boundaries, where every young male dreams to be a cowboy and little else.
Even greater explored are themes of masculinity and the unspoken expectations of gender roles. Johnny goes through his days doing what he’s told, only mentioning his goals in private or when provoked. In a world where the idea of masculinity is defined by bull riders and where picturesque cowboys are idolized, imagine how difficult it might be to break from the old.
It all circles back to that line of who will take care of his sister when he’s gone, prompting questions of why it is Johnny’s job and why she needs protection in the first place. Filmed with documentary styled frankness, the scenery provides the movie its most cinematic quality, with cinematographer Joshua James Richard capturing locations of natural untouched beauty. It’s a stark contrast to the characters’ less than glossy conversations and actors performances but it’s also what allows the film to feel so tangible.
There are some obvious drawbacks to the stripped bare manner of filmmaking, either with scenes that go on too long or non-performers who are apparently that, but it’s more than made up for. It’s not going to captivate everyone who watches, it’s much too quiet and introspective, happy to tell his story at a crawling pace. But it marvelously works as a singular character study. Johnny’s story isn’t particularly captivating, but due to the bare-bones script and a purposely naked performance by Reddy, it’s universal and gripping. We are able to care because this hurdle is one that many have experienced and will continue to. How do you leave home when you’ve been told you’re responsible for it? How do you leave behind preconceived notions of who you are and who you are meant to be as dictated by your small community?
There are moments where we wish the film would express itself louder, to give in to emotional weight attention-grabbing scenes, but to do that would be to undersell the very meditative nature of the film itself as well as under sell Johnny’s quiet and introspective journey.
Zhao’s film is imperfect, but it’s a heartfelt and gorgeous one with a very timely story at its core. If this is Zhao with her first full length featured film, I can’t wait to see what she brings to viewers next. This is a talent to keep an eye on.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me is out now in limited release.