Songs My Brother Taught Me: Film Review

Songs My Brother Taught Me

Director Chloe Zhao has become a big name thanks to her latest movie Nomadland, its impressive award-winning circuit at the film festivals, and her history-making Best Director Oscar nomination, which I’m confident she’s going to win. Thanks to Nomadland’s success, her feature directorial debut, Songs My Brother Taught Me, is finally getting a proper UK release.

The drama, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival all the way back in 2015, is set in Wounded Knee, a hamlet and creek on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, and follows Lakota boy Johnny Winters (John Reddy) and his little sister Jashaun (Jashaun St. John) as their lives are turned upside down by the death of their absentee father. His death prompts Johnny, who makes his money by selling alcohol, to decide to move to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Aurelia (Taysha Fuller), who is about to become a student at UCLA.

Like most of Zhao’s films, Songs My Brother Taught Me uses non-professional actors and this helps add a layer of realism to events and makes you feel like you’re witnessing a slice of their lives. To be clear, it’s not a documentary and the story is fictional but it feels so realistic. You become immersed in the small community and the family (their father had many other children) and feel like you’re bearing witness to intimate, private real-life moments. St. John is a terrific actor and you can’t help but feel sorry for her as the hurt about her brother leaving is painted plainly across her face, while Reddy does well portraying the conflict and anguish within Johnny.

It’s slow-moving and it took a while for me get into it but my patience was paid off by the performances and the satisfying third act. Joshua James Richards, who is currently nominated for an Oscar for his cinematography on Nomadland, served as DP on this movie and you can tell as there are so many gorgeous landscape shots in a similar vein to that film.

It was so nice to watch Songs My Brothers Taught Me and think of how far Zhao has come in the space of only six years – and rightly so.

Available on MUBI from Friday 9th April

Rating: 4 out of 5.