Songs My Brothers Taught Me




An early insight into what it is that makes Chloé Zhao's films so special.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me


Everybody is talking about Chloé Zhao and that is as it should be. The first sight that we in Britain had of her work - The Rider, released here in September 2018 - was proof enough of her talent, but the impact of its successor, Nomadland, has raised her to new heights. Because of Covid-19, British audiences have still to see Nomadland, but its fame as an award winner is widespread (it started with the Golden Lion at the 2020 Venice Film Festival, went on to such awards as Best Director for Zhao at the recent Golden Globes and we are all waiting to see how it fares at the Oscars). It seems likely that this degree of acclaim for her third feature is the reason why we now have the opportunity to see her first feature made back in 2015, Songs My Brothers Taught Me.


At this early stage Zhao was still finding her way, but the best parts of Songs My Brothers Taught Me are the equal of anything in her later work and there is the added interest of discovering the extent to which Zhao’s most notable characteristics were already in place. Although Zhao has long been established in America, she is Chinese and was born in Beijing in 1982. If this means that she sees herself as something of an outsider in the USA, that feeling surely links to her special sense of rapport with those who are to some extent on the margins of American society. All three films illustrate her empathy and her lack of condescension when portraying such people and in Songs My Brothers Taught Me those seen on screen are native Americans, Lakota Sioux living in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Here, as in her later films, she uses for the most part non-professionals who are invited to portray characters whose situation is relatively close to their own. The performances that she gets from such players are remarkable and, if that is a special gift that she possesses, equally striking is her ability through the use of location shooting to capture atmosphere vividly.


When it is working fully this approach achieves an admirable bend of drama and documentary authenticity and the first hour of Songs My Brothers Taught Me, splendidly photographed by Joshua James Richards and finely acted by the lead players, finds her on top form. Some viewers seem to have found the film too slow and too slight in plot, but in fact the details are so deft, the dialogue so well calculated to give insight, that the film's gradual revelation of life in the reservation acquires a quiet flow that feels natural and unforced. Adept, too, is the introduction of the main characters with a high school student, Johnny Winters (John Reddy), at the centre. Other key characters are his younger sister, 13-year-old Jashaun (Jashaun St. John) and his girlfriend Aurelia (Taysha Fuller) whose imminent departure for Los Angeles to study spurs him to make plans to move on by going with her. However, the situation at home renders this problematic. Early in the film we hear of the father's death in a fire (he had been an alcoholic notorious for the number of children he has had by different women) and we realise that Lisa Winters (Irene Bedard), the mother of Johnny and of Jashaun, is also a heavy drinker and unreliable. Consequently, if Johnny goes away as intended, he would be leaving his sister who relies on him in a precarious situation.


The sibling bond between these two is wonderfully well realised while the wider sense of life in the community is strongly conveyed through such subsidiary characters as an ex-con (Travis Lone Hill), a teacher and a pastor while the father's funeral and a boxing match in which Johnny is a contestant capture the life-style. So, too, in a different way does the fact that Johnny deals in booze illicitly to get by (this is an area in which there is much drinking but alcohol is illegal). As an example of Zhao creating a moment that is pitch perfect, I would select the short scene in which Aurelia's grandmother (Melda Trejo) lets Johnny know that she approves of him taking up with her granddaughter. Trejo's face could not be better suited and the words that she is given, few as they are, convey splendidly the character of this woman.


For me the weakness in Songs My Brothers Taught Me lies not in the pacing but in the failure to give the main narrative its head in the last third. As the time for Johnny's departure draws nearer one needs a stronger dramatic sense to drive the film. Instead Zhao continues with bits and pieces (there's a scene at a rodeo, the mother visits an older son who is in jail, there are complications involving Johnny and another woman who is visiting the reservation and, in addition to all that, Johnny gets beaten up by a rival bootlegger and the police stage a raid on a party). As its climax approaches the film would again gain much by being far more succinct and less bitty and, because of what it lacks in that respect, its full emotional potential is not realised. Consequently, this first feature is ultimately much less effective than its two splendid successors but, that said, there remains much here that admirers of Chloé Zhao's work will greatly appreciate and that means that this belated British release is very welcome.




Cast: John Reddy, Jashaun St. John, Irene Bedard, Travis Lone Hill, Taysha Fuller, Eleonore Hendricks,  Jared Reddy, Justin Reddy, Melda Trejo, Cat Clifford, Dakota Brown, Stanley Hollow Horn, Allen Reddy.


Dir Chloé Zhao, Pro Forest Whitaker, Nina Yang Bongiovi, Chloé Zhao, Milly Ashe and Angela C. Lee, Screenplay Chloé Zhao, Ph Joshua James Richards, Pro Des Melissa Barnard, Ed Alan Caviant and Chloé Zhao, Music Peter Golub.


Forest Whitaker's Significant Productions/Highwayman Films/HEART-Headed Productions/Nifty Productions-Mubi.
94 mins. USA. 2015. Rel: 9 April 2021. Available on Mubi. No Cert.