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Reel Review: ‘Songs my Brothers Taught Me’

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By Anna Husted EBS Contributor

American Indian representation in Hollywood is lacking at best and prejudiced at worst, reflecting its representation in the United States’ political system. Whether it’s protesting the construction of a pipeline through already second-rate reservation land, or continuous court battles over rights to the Black Hills, being an American Indian often means a life of injustice. “Songs my Brothers Taught Me” explores the reality of everyday life on the reservation, from daily tasks to commonplace burdens. While “Songs my Brothers Taught Me” is a fictional film, it taps into the true pulse of life on a reservation.

The debut feature film of writer and director Chloe Zhao is set on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, located in one of the poorest counties in America. While the sale of alcohol is illegal on the reservation, it’s not hard to find a local bootlegger who has crossed over into Nebraska to buy alcohol and sell it door-to-door on the reservation. This is Johnny Winter’s afterschool gig, at least until he can head to Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Aurelia.

When his absentee, bronco-riding father dies unexpectedly, Johnny picks up the emotional and intellectual baggage of the family in order to protect his younger sister, Jashaun, making it more difficult to tell her about his imminent plans to move to Los Angeles, and harder to quit drinking.

Although Johnny and Jashaun’s mother, Lisa, cooks dinner for them occasionally, she is ever-tearful and absent, even when present. Played by a somber Irene Bedard, Lisa struggles to give the two children under her roof the attention they need because she is consumed by her oldest son’s imprisonment and hatred of her.

With an almost entirely amateur cast, “Songs my Brothers Taught Me” has a visceral, edgy aura. From the long shots of the Badlands to the close-ups of Jashaun’s face as her hair blows in the dusty wind, “Songs my Brothers Taught Me” is far from an amateur film.

Although Johnny is the protagonist, Jashaun’s character is the titular perspective. After her father dies she reconnects with her dozen or so stepbrothers who take her under their wings in uncommon and, at times, irresponsible ways. They teach her all she didn’t know about her absent father including songs the siblings need to sing, play and hear in order to process losing their father and sense of tribal history.

Alcohol is also a main character in the film—both in its true-to-life role and impact on the reservation, and its powerful grip over the socio-economic status of both the bootleggers and abusers. Like many groups of people who have lost their homeland, the bottle provides solace and erases a memory that historically has been hard to hold on to.

I’ve had “Songs my Brothers Taught Me” on my Netflix list for about two years, but found the motivation to watch this placed-based film when I first started hearing praise for Zhao’s second feature film, “The Rider,” which is also shot on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and is now playing at Art House Cinema in Billings.

“Songs my Brothers Taught Me” is available for streaming on Netflix.

Anna Husted has a master’s in film studies from New York University. In Big Sky she can be found at the movies at Lone Peak Cinema or reading a book on her porch. When not gazing at the silver screen or watching her new favorite TV show, she’s running, fishing or roughhousing with her cat, Indiana Jones.

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