This year’s best picture at the Oscars was won by Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland. I will be writing a review for it shortly, but in the meantime, I watched her debut feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and was blown away by its authenticity. Songs My Brothers Taught Me is an intimate, honest portrayal of Native American life in the 21st century. It achieves both fascinating character studies and a window into the lives of some of the victims of American history.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me’s strengths lie in its honesty and accuracy. A highly realistic narrative, it tells the very real story of a young man looking for an escape from a community that is weighing him down. Johnny, our protagonist, is desperately looking for a way out of Pine Ridge Reservation, hoping to leave with his girlfriend when she starts college in Los Angeles. Despite his strong desire to remove himself from a situation that, while making alcohol illegal, makes for a highly stressful, competitive way of life, he is torn between his dreams for his future and his family. Early in the film, we find that Johnny and his younger sister Jashuan’s father has died, also revealing that he fathered many of the young people in the community. It is this sense of shared heritage and family that undercuts the film, showing a deep connection between all of the characters. The majority of the cast are real life members of the community, and are not professional actors, the film being very closely modelled on the real life of star John Reedy, who plays Johnny in a semi-autobiographical role. This comes through full force, making for incredibly emotive performances in a completely genuine film.
The authenticity of the narrative is complemented excellently by some beautiful cinematography and soundtrack. Evoking the sights and sounds of the natural world arounds them as well as both the modern and traditional cultural identities of its inhabitants, we are both immersed in the world of these characters as well as blown away by its beauty, bringing a wonderfully cinematic touch to the realism of the story. This creates an elegantly melancholic atmosphere that is both soothing and engaging. We are eased into this world of prohibition and poverty in a way that allows us to appreciate it for what it is, showing us the humanity, love and community that help make such places safe and enjoyable places to live.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me is eye-opening, tear-jerking and deeply personal. The real-life experiences of those involved in the production can be clearly felt through the performances, making the narrative more effective. Zhao brought a beautiful touch to these stories and told them in a way that does them justice, as well as making for some stunning cinema. I recommend this to anyone tired of over-produced, dishonest narratives, as this is a refreshing break.