The Badlands of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a stark landscape of eroded canyons and ravines whose beauty lies in the very bleakness of its terrain. Director Chloé Zhao harnesses the emotions of the Badlands and treats her subjects with the same removed reverence in her debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me. An understated, quotidian story that follows brother and sister Johnny (John Reddy) and Jashaun Winters (Jashaun St. John), the events will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the all-too-often deprived world of reservation life, but Zhao and her young actors make a story that we know so well thoroughly engrossing.

As written by Zhao, the script is sparing with its dialogue, so when Johnny opens the film with the line, “Anything that runs wild has got something bad in them. You want to leave some of that in there, because they need it to survive,” it clearly has a deep bearing on the events and underlying themes of Songs. The plot, as loosely, organically framed as it is, hones in on the nature of family and its importance for survival in one of the poorest places in America. Johnny and Jashaun live with their alcoholic mother, but their estranged father—a bull rider who fathered 25 children with nine women—has just died. With the knowledge that her brother plans to follow his girlfriend to Los Angeles when she goes to college (essentially abandoning her), Jashaun embraces the opportunity of her father’s funeral to meet her many half-siblings and find a way to keep herself afloat on her own.

Johnny, for his part, has plenty wildness in him, and he is straining against the typical trajectory of a reservation life, desperate to break a cycle of destitution. In the process, he makes regular trips across the border to Nebraska to buy alcohol and supports his family and sets aside money for his future by sending it back home. The irony of his precarious situation—a victim of the reservation’s rampant alcoholism and desperately trying to escape—is not lost on the film, but it’s something Johnny never has the luxury of contemplating deeply. Work is a necessity in his position, and there are few, if any, opportunities above-board.

The film’s strongest moments are in its brief, often wordless sequences. Dozens of half-siblings remembering a father through innocuous anecdotes; Johnny throwing literal dust to wind in his frustration; Jashaun scouring the ashes of her father’s burnt home for mementos. Zhao embraces the restlessness of her characters and channels it through handheld camerawork. That and Joshua James Richards’ cinematography breathe life into these lived-in locations with jarring realism (as if the holes in the plaster walls weren’t enough). The effect is a caustic energy that ramps up the tension already surrounding Johnny and Jashaun’s future.

There is certainly no lack of momentous events that threaten to derail the precarious security in Johnny and Jashaun’s lives, but Zhao remains committed to a minimalistic, unintrusive approach to telling their story. The effect is alternately monotonous, even standoffish, and resoundingly powerful. To say that the film is low-key is a massive understatement, but, conversely, anything that stoked the drama would be mawkishly overplaying a brutal reality. Songs‘ greatest successes are in its soulful sense of place and the naturalistic performances of its novice actors. Zhao’s film has fathoms of pointed drama but proves its restraint by letting that drama speak for itself.

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