Riley Keough's directorial debut thrives in its depiction of youth but falls down whenever it shoots for social commentary
Many recent films come to mind while watching Riley Keough and Gina Gammell’s directorial debut War Pony. There is the lewd decadency of Sean Baker’s unofficial sex worker trilogy, the frequently claustrophobic political undertones of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, the sluggish rhythms of a small community laid out in Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, and the naïve ingeniousness of children who think they know it all niftily translated by Jonah Hill in Mid90s.
Perhaps this blatant sipping from the fountain of indie darlings is to blame for the lacklustre nature of this coming of ager, a mishmash of previous hits that struggles to find its own footing. Originally titled Beast in a nod not only to the large poodle purchased by 23-year-old Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) in the hopes of banking the big bucks through breeding but to the rebellious nature of 12-year-old Matho (Ladainian Crazy Thunder), War Pony follows these two characters as they go about their day to day on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Bill tightly gripping onto the precious carelessness of adolescence as Matho is ruthlessly pushed into the unforgiving hands of adulthood.
Bill navigates life with a stoner cadence, his words uttered with the laggardly pace of the naturally unhurried. His existence is a clunky domino effect, one half-baked decision leading to another in a never-ending series of improvised leaps. The unemployed man has two kids with two different women, both often looked after by their grandmother. In contrast, Matho is the epitome of movement, unable to linger as it means dwelling on the many hardships of his life as the drifter son of a drug dealer.
There are scattered bouts of inspiration in Keough and Gammell’s effort, particularly when it focuses on the shared silliness of youthful naïveté, allowing the raw charisma of the first-time actors to take centre stage. When it tries to sink its teeth into gnarly social critique, however, the film stumbles on the brink of parody. “Oh, dream catchers! She’s going to like this!” says the – very white, very blonde – wife of Bill’s boss when gifting him one of her many earrings as an offering to his girlfriend. When the same woman reflects on her husband’s infidelity, she calls his preference for Indigenous women a “fetish.” These moments, crafted with the intention of scrutinising the twisted dynamics at play, feel performative instead, the two white women behind the camera serving as a stingy reminder of the very complex structure these scenes aim to nod at.
At certain points of War Pony, a massive bison shows up onscreen, at once diegetic and displaced. Native American folklore sees the bison as a symbol of strength, endurance and protection, the animal a vital source of food directly related to the survival of ancient tribes in South Dakota. The bison’s presence, here, speaks to stories told by the fire, tales passed from generation to generation, an ancestral connection to the land. It is a poignant symbolism, as Keough and Gammell’s film ultimately poses a difficult question: whose stories are these to tell?
War Pony was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2022. It is released in UK cinemas on 9 June.Where to watch