Johnny (John Reddy) and Jashaun (Jashaun St. John) live in a Lakota reservation with their alcoholic mother Lisa (Irene Bedard). As their oldest brother is in jail, Johnny is trying to keep the family afloat by smuggling and selling alcohol on the reservation. But he’s also finishing high school and dreams of living for LA with his girlfriend Aurelia (Taysha Fuller). When their estranged father dies in an accident, Johnny and Jashaun connect with their half-siblings – their father had 25 children with 9 women. As Johnny spends more time with the alcohol business he expanded with the help of a newly acquired car, Jashaun explores the lives of her brothers.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me is above all interesting because of the setting in the Lakota reservation. But I also quite liked the characters and I really enjoyed the atmosphere Zhao created.
It’s hard to believe that Songs My Brothers Taught Me is Zhao’s first feature film. For one, it is such an atmospheric and enchanting film. Partly that has to do with the great landscape that is perfectly captured by the camera, but I think the bigger part is the laid back attitude that is visible through the camera: Zhao knows how to let the story unfold so that it reaches her instead of chasing after it and that is apparent every step of they way.
Even more importantly, she has a senisitive way of approaching subject matters that are not exactly easy topics. She does so with love and without judgement for the characters but with a lot of criticism of the society that lets things come that far. There’s just an emotional maturity on display here that you wouldn’t expect from a first-timer.
But of course Zhao wasn’t the only one involved in the making of the film. Since she shot on location and with the people who lived in the reservation, the entire film feels like a community project that gives people like me who only ever heard of reservations a layered insight into this particular world.
The movie’s ending is rather open, but hopeful: in the end, it’s not only about what they can learn from their big brothers, but what Johnny can learn from Jashaun and her optimistic, open approach to life. I liked that.