Songs My Brothers Taught Me

Director: Chloé Zhao
Screenplay: Chloé Zhao
Stars: John Reddy (Johnny Winters), Jashaun St. John (Jashaun Winters), Travis Lone Hill (Travis), Taysha Fuller (Aurelia Clifford), Irene Bedard (Lisa Winters), Allen Reddy (Bill)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2015
Country: U.S.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me Blu-ray
Songs My Brothers Taught Me

Chloé Zhao won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars last year for Nomadland (2020), her incisive portrait of itinerate people living and working out of their vans and trucks and RVs throughout the vast Midwest, and for many viewers, her impressive and moving film seemed to come out of nowhere. Zhao was, after all, hardly a household name, even among cinephiles who pride themselves on seeking out the independent and the foreign in lieu of mainstream Hollywood fare. The Chinese-born writer/director had only two indie features to her credit at the time, including her feature debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me, which she developed at the Sundance Institute. It brought her enough attention and acclaim (it played at both Sundance and Cannes) that she was able to follow it up two years later with a second feature, The Rider (2017), which was nominated for a host of Independent Spirit Awards.

Going back to Songs My Brothers Taught Me, we can see all the seeds of Nomadland—not just the neorealist aesthetic and minimalist plotting, but the sensitive attention paid to outsiders and underdogs, people who live at the margins of the American dream. What I wrote about Nomadland applies here equally: “Zhao’s film … shows us a world that exists right now and that most of us are probably entirely unaware of. Or, if we are aware, that awareness is distant and academic; this is, we know of it, but we don’t know it.” While Nomadland focused on displaced itinerants, victims of economic collapse and an corrupt financial system, Songs My Brothers Taught Me looks at life in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation through the eyes of two adolescents: 12-year old Jashuan (Jashaun St. John) and her 17-year-old brother, Johnny (Johnny Winters). Jashuan and Johnny live a meager existence with their mother, Lisa (Irene Bedard), who can barely make ends meet. To help supplement their income, Johnny sells alcohol, which is illegal on the reservation, although he primarily harbors dreams of moving to Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Aurelia (Taysha Fuller), who wants to be a lawyer (virtually everyone else in their high school class wants to work the rodeo circuit).

Like Zhao’s other films, Songs My Brothers Taught Me has a purposefully meandering quality, wandering from scene to scene in the ebb and flow of life itself, which Zhao is particularly gifted at evoking without feeling precious. Much of the film’s emotional pull hinges on Johnny and Jashuan losing their father in a house fire. A man they barely knew (he had 25 children by nine women), his loss nevertheless brings them into contact with their numerous half-siblings and creates new possibilities for connection and loss. Jashuan, searching for some kind of footing for her young life, starts helping a tattooed artist named Travis (Travis Lone Hill) who has recently been released from prison and is trying to make a living selling his art. Johnny runs into serious, potentially deadly, trouble with rival alcohol smugglers, reminding him and us that even petty crime can have severe consequence if you cross the wrong people.

Yet, Songs My Brothers Taught Me is never reducible to any simple bromides or big themes. It is an observant film, one that is content to sit back and survey the lives of its characters unfold in ways that are sometimes messy, sometimes poignant, and sometimes banal. Zhao has a keen eye for human behavior and insight, and she evokes a richness of existence in her characters’ sometimes desperate live, calling attention to the plight of Native Americans in the modern age without making it a “message movie.” Zhao is content to let things be what they are, and her characters to speak their lives in ways that always attest to their humanity and ours. Songs My Brothers Taught Me is not a major film—it is willfully restricted and spare—but it does point to what was to come and suggests that Zhao has much more to say.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Bloopers
  • Deleted scenes
  • Interview with writer/director Chloé Zhao
  • Trailer
  • DistributorKino Lorber
    Release DateOctober 5, 2021

    Songs My Brothers Taught Me was originally released on DVD back in 2016, so Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray marks its debut on home video in high-definition. Kino’s presentation stays true to the film’s delicate balance between lyrical imagery, especially of landscapes and skies, and the handheld aesthetic that gives its story a documentary-like verisimilitude. Colors are fairly subdued throughout, with some strong hues in golden sunsets and some of the clothing. The image is sharp and rich in detail, especially in the many close-ups. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround soundtrack is excellent in evoking a sense of space and environment. There is little music, so the surround channels are primarily used for environmental sounds like the wind and people talking and moving in the background. It is highly effective in grounding the story in its location. In terms of supplements, there is a four-minute blooper reel that offers some insight into the improvisational nature of the work; six deleted scenes that run about 10 minutes total and are mostly extensions of scenes already in the film; a trailer; and an 11-minute interview with writer/director Chloé Zhao that will likely make you wish she had recorded an entire audio commentary.

    Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Kino Lorber

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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