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November 08, 2015

Denver Film Festival: Songs my Brother Taught Me

songs my brother taught me.jpg

Chloe Zhao - 2015

For the first few minutes, I thought I was watching a documentary, what use to be called cinema verite, of a teen brother and his young sister in their home. And in a way, Chloe Zhao is filming a version of reality with most of her cast playing characters with the same personal names.

As it turned out, reality was incorporated into the narrative. The scene of young Jashaun St. John in tears, exploring the ruins of a burned down house, was filmed at her actual house. The tattooed covered artist, Travis, is a real artist, with his work displayed in the film.

The film was shot at the Pine Ridge Reservation, in a community dotted mostly with aged prefabricated houses, isolated from the outside world. Most of the narrative is about Johnny, a high school senior, with no sense of what he wants to do with his life. He talks about following his girlfriend to Los Angeles, where she's going to college, with some vague idea about getting a job and finding a place to live. Time is spent hanging out with friends, getting drunk, and getting into fights. Zhao avoids making a coming of age story. There are no epiphanies, simply a little more self-understanding.

With the exception of Irene Bedard as Johnny and Jashaun's mother, the cast is mostly residents of Pine Ridge. There are no moments of high drama. Sometimes the most most dramatic element is the wind blowing against the faces of the people. Zhao is observational, and non-judgmental about her characters, whether it's Johnny's jailed older brother, the female photographer visiting the reservation, or the older white high school teacher who attempts to encourage his students. Contemporary culture alternates or mixes with Native American culture, sometimes incongruously. With effective use of a non-professional cast, Chloe Zhao pays quiet tribute to the oft cliched idea of home.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 8, 2015 09:13 AM