Choe Zhao’s 2020 film Nomadland made a big splash in the cinematic world, scooping up prestigious awards like the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the BAFTA for Best Film, and three Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress (Frances McDormand). Any director would be proud of a film that was so recognized for excellence, but there’s an extra level of significance to Zhao winning these honors, because the success of Nomadlandmade her only the second woman, and the first woman of color, to be chosen as Best Director by the voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Zhao may have seemed like an overnight success, but in fact she had directed two feature films prior to Nomadland: Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017). Both were greeted with critical acclaim, but as both were also highly personal and lacked the conventional hooks (to say nothing of a well-known cast) that are usually required to make a film a mainstream success, they didn’t make her name a household word. I mean that as a compliment—I like Nomadland well enough, but would take either of Zhao’s first two films over it, for the very reason that they avoid that they’re not making the kind of compromises necessary to appeal to a mass audience—and both her early films are well worth viewing if you’re up for something a bit outside the mainstream.
Songs My Brother’s Taught Me is one of those films that is really more about mood and atmosphere than plot. It’s set among the Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, presenting their daily routines so simply and unhurriedly that you’ll find yourself unconsciously relaxing into the slow pace of reservation life. Not that Zhao, who also wrote the screenplay, is trying to glamorize life on the reservation: the land is hardscrabble, the poverty is grinding, and people frequently act in ways that harm themselves and others. Not because they mean to be evil, generally, but because they live in an environment that offers so little in the way of more positive opportunities.
The central character is Jashaun Winters (Jashaun St. John; like many cast members, this is her film debut), a quiet young girl who, at age 11, is young enough to be able to remain somewhat aloof from the troubles around her. She’s certainly aware of them, however: as the film opens, we learn that her father has just died in a house fire, the kind of preventable death that just doesn’t happen in most parts of the world. At his funeral, one speaker reveals that he had 25 children with 9 wives, and this is not viewed as particularly unusual within the community, which gives you an idea of what Jashaun has to look forward to when she grows up. She lives with her mother Lisa (Irene Bedard), who works in a café, and her older brother Johnny (John Reddy), a high school student helps support the family by illegally distributing liquor on the reservation, which turns out to be just as dangerous as you would expect. Visiting a friend in prison, Johnny receives a piece of advice—Get off the Rez—and he plans to do just that, heading for Los Angeles with his girlfriend Aurelia (Taysha Fuller) after graduation.
Not a lot happens, at least in the conventional way of Hollywood films, in Songs My Brother’s Taught Me, but that’s sort of the point (and also why it probably never played your local multiplex, although it did well on the festival circuit). It’s respectful to the lives of the characters it portrays, but doesn’t try to make them better than they are. Watching it, you get to feel their reality, and that’s enough for one film to offer. | Sarah Boslaugh
Songs My Brothers Taught Me is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, and is also available for digital streaming through Kino Now. Extras on the disc include a selection of bloopers and looks behind the scenes (4 min.), 6 deleted scenes, an interview with director Chloe Zhao (11 min.), and the film’s trailer.