It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The venerable editor-in-chief of this site, Matt Zoller Seitz, once suggested to me that there should be a cable channel called BLTV, short for Badlands Television, comprised of films derivative of Terrence Malick’s “Badlands.” Expanding that idea somewhat, I would argue that BLTV needs to be part of a much larger Malick Network, which would include not only beautiful-young-criminals-on-the-lam tales but also the many films by American indie directors influenced by Malick’s poetic way with light, landscapes and impressionistic narratives focused on inward-looking characters (they’re the ones whose pensive musings are usually conveyed in voice-over).
Chloe Zhao’s “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” would earn a prime spot on the Malick Network (though not, ironically, on BLTV: though set in the Badlands of South Dakota, it doesn’t concern lovers-on-the-lam). It also has another, somewhat overlapping pedigree. A product of the Sundance Labs and their dedication to fostering movies about Native American culture, it is an earnest, smartly mounted film about life on a present-day reservation. If the Malick and Sundance influences combined lead you to expect a work that’s stronger aesthetically and ethnographically than dramatically, then you won’t be surprised by “Songs My Brothers Taught Me.”
The character whose voice-overs begin and end the film, Johnny (John Reddy), is a handsome, muscular Lakota high school senior who’s itching to leave the dreary confines of reservation life and move to Los Angeles. We first see him riding a horse and pensively musing on how it’s necessary to leave some of the wildness in such an animal, which needs that edge to survive. Thankfully, the metaphorical obviousness here doesn’t continue, as Zhao quickly settles into a nuanced, unhurried look at the life Johnny wants to escape.
The boy’s most crucial relationship is with his younger sister, Jashaun (Jashaun St. John), who looks to him for the understanding and emotional support she doesn’t find elsewhere. The two live with their erratic, troubled mom (Irene Bedard), who tries to urge the comfort she finds in religion on an older son who’s in prison.