The Movie Waffler New to VOD - WAR PONY | The Movie Waffler


Two youngsters on a Lakota reservation take differing paths to make money.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Riley Keough, Gina Gammell

Starring: Jojo Bapteise Whiting, Ladainian Crazy Thunder, Jesse Schmockel, Sprague Hollander, Wilma Colhof, Ashley Shelton

War Pony poster

Like the first two movies of Chloé Zhao - Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider - War Pony is set in South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and follows the travails of young men facing an uncertain future. It's less insular in its storytelling than Zhao's films however and has more in common with traditional social realist filmmaking. Actress Riley Keough makes her directorial debut here along with Gina Gammell, and it's not a stretch to imagine Keough took some notes from her collaboration with that modern British master of social realist cinema, Andrea Arnold, on 2015's American Honey. In fact, Keough initially devised the idea for War Pony through her interactions with two young extras on that film: Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, both of whom wrote the script with Keough and Gammell.

War Pony review

The film follows two young protagonists who are divided by a few years in age but are so identical in their personalities that you might wonder if they're actually the same character at two different points in their life. Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder) is roughly 12 years old and has been raised in an unstable environment by his drug dealing father. Finding his old man's stash of meth, Matho and his friends decide to strike out on their own in the world of drug dealing. Their naivete leads to Matho being kicked out of his home and staying with a Fagan-esque aunt who employs a horde of pubescent kids to sell drugs on the reservation.

Elsewhere, cocky late teen Bill (an astonishingly good Jojo Bapteise Whiting) is similarly looking for a fast way to make an easy buck, albeit through legal means. Buying a dog from Echo (Jesse Schmockel), the mother of one of his two young kids, Bill plans to breed the animal and sell the puppies for a lucrative sum. Bill hopes this will bring him closer to Echo, who resists his undeniable charm and keeps him at a distance from herself and her son. While waiting for the dog to give birth, Bill takes a job as a general dogsbody for a local wealthy white turkey farmer. His role mostly consists of ferrying young Lakota women on and off the reservation to facilitate his employer's extra-marital affairs.

War Pony review

Despite its very American setting and very American theme of entrepreneurial endeavours, War Pony has a universal quality that could be translated to any part of the world where a working class community has been left to rot. In its willingness to portray its protagonists engaging in ethically dubious behaviour (one is selling meth to kids while the other is essentially sex trafficking young women) without ever casting judgement, it resembles a product of European indie cinema more so than its American cousin. There's no suggestion that Matho and Bill are going to change their ways and adopt more conventional lifestyles, because that simply doesn't seem to be a choice. These are two young men left to choke on dust and fumes as the American dream pulls out of town. They're doing the best they can, and while it's true that their actions are perpetuating a cycle of hardship and causing trouble to their own community, what options do they really have?

Regardless of the immoral behaviour they find themselves embroiled in, Matho and Bill are as charming and likeable a pair of kids as you could encounter. When we meet them first their macho braggadocio might cause you to roll your eyes, but as we spend time in their company we quickly realise it's a front, a defence mechanism. When Matho calls the classmate he has a crush on a "bitch" when she rejects his advances, we see on his face that he immediately regrets the insult and probably doesn't even understand why he said it. Bill probably won't win any Father of the Year awards but you can tell in his own way he wants to settle down with Echo and his boys, and when his boss makes a belittling misogynistic comment in front of his wife, the contempt on Bill's face is clear.

War Pony review

Our familiarity with narratives of this ilk means we suspect Matho and Bill's paths are headed for tragedy, and there's always a suspicion around white liberal filmmakers playing in a minority sandbox. I won't reveal whether this is actually the case or not, but I will say Keough and Gammell wrap up their film in a surprising manner. For Matho and Bill, the tragedy has happened before the movie unspools. It happened centuries ago and their troubles are simply a repercussion of historical attitudes that continue to prevail. They may not share their specific cultural identity, but you'll find young men like Matho and Bill in discarded communities across the globe, young men simply trying to make something of themselves in a world that would rather keep them out of sight.

War Pony is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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