Chloé Zhao’s debut feature now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber
Before The Rider and her Oscar win earlier this year for Nomadland, director Chloé Zhao aimed her camera on the indigenous community in Pine Ridge Reservation. With a cast of mostly non-actors — as well as seasoned talent like Irene Bedard (Smoke Signals) — Zhao and her crew filmed the largely improvised work of Songs My Brothers Taught Me.
In the 2015 film, Johnny (John Reddy) makes cash as a bootlegger, illegally bringing alcohol into the reservation, saving up cash so he can leave for California when his girlfriend Aurelia (Taysha Fuller, Degrassi: The Next Generation) moves there for school. He’s hesitant to break the news to his little sister Jashaun (Jashaun St. John). The siblings share a close relationship since their mother isn’t much of a caretaker and their dad has just died.
Bedard plays their mom Lisa in a role that is too obviously underwritten; she’s barely given a chance to move beyond stereotype. Although the improvisational nature of the film leads to a feel similar to cinema verite, the film lacks the depth of Zhao’s later work. The story moves from grim to grimmer, emphasizing the limitations placed on the residents of the reservation. There’s little hope on display, except for the naive optimism of Jashaun.
The editing is powerful, especially when the audience is shown events from Jashaun’s point of view. Joshua James Richards, who would also serve as DP for The Rider and Nomadland, creates onscreen moments beautiful in their intimacy and vastness; Pine Ridge Reservation offers a unique landscape for such filming.
Even with such gorgeous cinematography, Songs My Brothers Taught Me verges too close to soullessness. Besides the indigenous casting and rare setting, there’s not enough that that is unique and memorable about the stories it chooses to tell. Still, it’s likely a must see for any Zhao completist.
The new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber includes a few bonus features:
- An interview with Zhao (it appears to be from 2016) about her debut film, shooting on a budget, the casting process and more.
- Deleted scenes and bloopers
- Original trailer