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New Release Review [MUBI] - SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME

songs my brothers taught me review
A Lakota Sioux teenager makes plans to leave his reservation for Los Angeles.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Chloé Zhao

Starring: John Reddy, Jashaun St. John, Travis Lone Hill, Taysha Fuller, Irene Bedard

songs my brothers taught me poster

I've long felt that America is wasted on modern American filmmakers. Where once American directors ventured out into their country's great landscape and filmed craggy actors like Warren Oates and Walter Brennan, today's crop would rather shoot a bunch of British public school graduates in front of a greenscreen in a Burbank warehouse.

Chloé Zhao may be Chinese, but her films are more American than most of the movies made by her American contemporaries. Her storytelling is as American as that of Ford, Hawks and Peckinpah. Her stories are populated by the same sort of people – stubborn, rugged individuals who symbolise everything that makes America so equally fascinating and frustrating. Her first two movies take place in a neglected corner of America, South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, with members of the local Lakota Sioux community playing alternate versions of themselves. Zhao isn't concerned with plot so much as characters, and how those characters coalesce into a community. Her films have much in common with the recent work of Malick, with the landscape, the horses and everything else under that big Dakota sky playing a vital role in the drama.

songs my brothers taught me review

Zhao broke out with her second feature, 2017's The Rider, but it's only now that her 2015 debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me is seeing the light of day on this side of the pond, likely due to the awards buzz around her acclaimed third feature, Nomadland.


As with The Rider, Zhao's debut is centred on a young man who finds himself at a crossroads. High school is coming to a close for Johnny (John Reddy), but he's never been one for book learnin' anyhow. With alcohol banned from the reservation, Johnny earns a living selling bootleg hooch to the local drunks. He's saving up his money to buy a battered pickup truck from his boss, which he plans to use to drive his girlfriend Aurelia (Taysha Fuller) to Los Angeles. Aurelia has won a place in an LA law school, but Johnny hasn't given much thought to how he'll support himself in the city, if he's even fully committed to the idea.

songs my brothers taught me review

Heartbroken at the thought of her big brother leaving her alone with their sullen, alcoholic mother (Irene Bedard), Johnny's kid sister Jashaun (Jashaun St. John) avoids him and begins hanging out with Travis (Travis Lone Hill), a heavily tattooed ex-con, ex-alcoholic who has since found God and sobriety but who seems ready to fall off the wagon at any moment.


Much like The Rider, Songs... is about a young working class man learning to accept the hand he's been dealt. It shares a common theme with Philip Kaufman's The Wanderers and Tyler Taormina's recent indie gem Ham on Rye – that of being left behind when your friends venture off to build a life you haven't earned the qualifications for. Through the eyes of Johnny and Jashaun we get two very different views of the reservation. Johnny sees it merely as a place to escape from, but for Jashaun it's a place of wonder. Johnny falls for a young white woman who seems only interested in him as an adventure, or fuel for a future anecdote. Jashaun immerses herself in her community, seeing only the good in people, even when they can't see it themselves. Her relationship with Travis is incredibly sweet, but it's also a damning indictment of how many children spend their childhoods looking after grown-up men who can't get their shit together.

songs my brothers taught me review

Snatches of Johnny's inner monologue suggest a cynical view of the reservation. He describes it as a place that hardens its inhabitants, and we get the feeling that his childhood was similarly stolen by necessity. But as he walks through its canyons, gazes up at the blue badlands sky and lets the earth run through his fingers, it's all too clear that for better or worse, this is where he belongs.

It's ironic that a filmmaker from China found a natural home in this corner of America – what a shame that she too has now been tempted by the bright lights of Los Angeles, as you can't help but feel that Pine Ridge has many more stories to tell.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me
 is on MUBI UK/ROI from April 9th.



2021 movie reviews