There’s a lot of fire in Songs My Brothers Taught Me, a 2015 film directed by Chloe Zhao. The film opens with a fire that causes the death of the protagonist’s father, and there’s a haunting climax where dreams literally go up in smoke. But there are also warm, hopeful scenes of Powwows around enormous fires and gently coaxed barbeques where friends say goodbye. Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a bleak, though quietly optimistic look at a population that doesn’t get a lot of representation in popular media: members of the Lakota Nation in the Midwest.
The film was shot almost entirely on location in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The actors are mostly native and share names with their characters. Many of them are non-professional actors, and this lends the film a naturalistic, almost documentary-like style. The scenery of the movie is stunning, and the silence in the landscape is often more telling than the dialogue. Long, glorious shots of enormous chalk white cliffs contrast sharply with glimpses inside the small collapsing houses where the characters live.
The film centers around a brother and sister. Johnny, the brother, is a senior in high school desperately seeking any way out of his reservation life, planning to flee to LA with his girlfriend, Aurelia. The sister, JaShaun, is eleven years old. When she catches wind of Johnny’s plans to leave the reservation, she seeks out a number of people to replace him when he’s gone, from a local artist, tattooed head to toe, to some of the rodeo cowboys in town, the only non-native characters in the film. These interactions never result in a dramatic climax or painful revelation. Instead, the sparse and quiet dialogue creates a poignant picture of life on a reservation, where there’s a great deal of pain but also small bonds of love. JaShaun is indeed taught songs by her brothers — the role models in her life — but the way she learns never feels pedantic or heavy-handed, merely a way of growing. The overall arc of the plot can feel a little clichéd, when love overcomes self-interest; but the real art of the movie lies in its silences, as the scenery subtly reflects the everyday beauty in reservation life. It is a quiet, beautiful film that can be appreciated for many reasons.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me will be playing at the Walker Cinema at the Walker Arts Museum March 11–13: Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $9 ($7 Walker members, students and seniors).