SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME screened as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. For more information, head here.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a contemplative, unhurried masterpiece. It paints a stirring portrait of life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota through the eyes of two siblings, Johnny (John Reddy) and Jashaun (JaShaun St. John), as they both start to question and explore the idea of home. And that’s what this movie is really all about: home.
Johnny is planning on moving to LA with his girlfriend. He works by smuggling and selling alcohol on the reserve (it’s illegal) and is being threatened by another underground operation. He’s very close with his sister. His mum drinks too much. When he’s caught taking a nap at school, the teacher asks if he’s hungover as if it’s no thang. That’s life on the reserve. When he and Jashaun find out their birth father (a man who had many “wives” and sired 25 brothers for Johnny and Jashaun) died in a house fire, they both react different. Johnny seems more determined than ever to get off the reserve and Jashaun delves deeper into her father’s legacy and her own heritage.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me has a loose narrative; each scene is almost standalone and could act as a vignette—little glimpses into life on Pine Ridge. And entwined in Johnny and Jashaun’s quest for homes, new and old, we are shown the harsh realities of living on a reserve: the dilapidated homes, the alcohol problems, the lack of jobs, the constant police sirens signalling that something, somewhere, is going wrong. It’s no wonder that Johnny wants to leave, but it’s also easy to see why Jashaun wants to stay.
In the Q&A, director Chloe Zhao said that sometimes filmmakers tell what they know, but she prefers to tell what she doesn’t—to learn something new. And the concept of a “home” to her, a constant traveler, was always foreign until she met the Lakota residents at Pine Ridge. And her hope with Songs My Brothers Taught Me was to help viewers understand the amazing and strong people who live on these reservations.
Like I mentioned, the film has its own quiet, deliberate pace, which is complemented by beautiful cinematography that captures both the sweeping, grand landscapes of South Dakota and the tender, intimate moments of the film’s characters. It may be too understated for some, but I think it’s worth it all just to hear the closing monologue, which is so heart-achingly poignant it brought tears to my eyes.
Siân Melton is covering Sundance for us live from Park City, Utah. Read about her other work, including her Toronto-based film series The MUFF Society, below.