Finally granted a UK release six years after its festival debut, this drama lays the groundwork for its director's future masterworks
The wait between the premiere of Chloé Zhao’s second film, The Rider, at Cannes 2017 and its UK release in September 2018 was an agonisingly long one, but that journey has nothing on the one taken by her debut, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, debuting in 2015 and only just now arriving in the UK, six years later. For the most part, it’s worth the wait – not quite as brilliant as The Rider or Nomadland, but clearly laying the groundwork for those masterworks while exuding a deeply moving identity of its own.
As is now Zhao’s trademark, Songs focuses in on a family playing lightly fictionalised versions of themselves – in this case teenager Johnny (John Reddy) and his young sister Jashaun (Jashaun St John), Lakota siblings living on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation. After their mum turns to drink following the death of their estranged dad, Johnny has to take care of Jashaun, but at the same time is secretly planning to leave for California, funding the trip by selling illicit booze for a small-time bootlegger.
Zhao lets this story play out without judgement, everyone involved just doing what they need to do to thrive in a poor and often ignored community. There are some sublime moments of grace and humour, from the adoring sibling relationship at the film’s heart, to the moral musings of a well-meaning local tattoo artist, as every resident on the reservation is granted a quiet dignity by Zhao’s camera.
Songs is sparser and a little more kitchen sink-y than either of Zhao’s two subsequent films, but there’s still a lot of beauty to its vast, empty landscapes and the naturalistic performances Zhao is able to draw out of her non-professional cast. We know now that even better things were to come from Zhao, but this is still a hugely affecting and impressive introduction to her style.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me is now streaming on MUBI.Where to watch