The success of Chloé Zhao at the Academy Awards means the Nomadland director’s back catalogue is about to meet a lot of new fans. For The Rider, this will add to the love it reaped on the independent circuit. Songs My Brothers Taught Me, however, was probably initially watched by as many critics as it was by paying punters. A film of quiet heart and social concern, it certainly deserves a greater audience.
As with its two successors, Songs is a naturalistic portrayal of life amongst communities on the fringes of America. Also like its successors, it casts non-professional actors to play versions of themselves. Set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, it utilises the close relationship between high school senior John (John Reddy) and his 11-year old sister Jashaun (Jashaun St. John) to bring a portion of modern Native American existence to the screen. It is an existence without money, and one that fictional John dreams of escaping by tagging on to his girlfriend Aurelia (Taysha Fuller)’s move to Los Angeles for college, despite him possessing no obvious skills.
Zhao’s film shows that life on the forgotten empty plains of the US is beset by cyclical issues. Alcoholism, negative attitudes towards education, law enforcement (or lack of), and drifting ambition are all present. The consequence, or cause, of these problems are broken family units, with John and Jashaun’s home life established early as a long shadow: at their father’s funeral 25 children, borne by a variety of women, are briefly reunited. John later comments to his incarcerated brother Cody that it’s like their father is more present in death. Some of the siblings have taken their stepfathers’ surnames in recognition of men more capable of responsibility.
Whilst its set up and setting may suggest misery, Songs is far smarter than a mere tale of woe. Instead, it is a soft film about family evolution within a struggling sphere. Zhao excellently understands how leaving ‘all you know when you grow up’ is not easy, despite its ills, and a few must test the door before one breaks through. Moreover, the sole difference between John and Cody, or Kevin, or any other brother, is Jashaun. Still blessed with youthful positivity, curiosity, and a smile only dimmed upon hearing John will leave her, she is his elixir on ‘the rez’ and is charismatically played by St. John.
Songs’ softness is emphasised by its technical aspects, in which Zhao has proven herself superb. Although the protagonists never travel far, the sparse population and open landscapes mean the screen is never cluttered. The dialogue and pacing is also relaxed, meaning that graphic scenes of sex, a beating, and the skinning of an animal gain greater power. Meanwhile, Zhao grounds her film through the appearance of classical elements. Fire, clay and wind are frequent visual and spoken references, tying the community to its land. The only missing force is water, which is sadly replaced by beer.
All of Chloé Zhao’s features to date have been, at least partially, based in South Dakota. One could deem it ironic that commercial success bloomed once she stepped beyond the state lines – Nomadland visits California and Arizona – yet this first film in fact foreshadows its director’s career, with fundamentals maturing across generations before breaking free. And whilst Songs may have been superseded in emotional poignancy by The Rider and in success by Nomadland, it is still a beautifully crafted film from which the others grew. The talent was apparent, and the watching is well worth it.