The plurality of personage in the title Songs My Brothers Taught Me contrasts with the title Songs My Mother Taught Me, Marlon Brando’s 1994 autobiography, in instructive ways. Although Chloé Zhao’s film has nothing to do with Brando specifically, its South Dakota setting, handheld camera work, and nonprofessional actors together suggest a revisionist iteration of Hollywood’s 1950s Tennessee Williams adaptations, like A Streetcar Named Desire or The Fugitive Kind, where pastoral or Southern settings served the prestige vehicles meant for exercising Brando’s method-acting chops.
Zhao’s conceptual rigor initially stuns for its ambition, especially in making Johnny (John Reddy), a Native American teenager living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the film’s focus as a neo-Brando figure in his own right—a steely eyed boy becoming a man who’s a product, for better or worse, of his environment. The better pertains to Johnny’s skills at breaking horses, which he’s seen doing in the opening scene. The worse relates to his stalled ambitions beyond the confines of reservation life. Zhao portrays character interactions through collages of moments instead of entire scenes, making comparisons to the films of Terrence Malick inevitable. In fact, the likeness only intensifies when Johnny reflects, in voiceover, on how the “badlands” are a “hard place to leave, because that’s all you’ve got growing up.”
Songs My Brothers Taught Me evaluates the pros and cons of small-town existence by inserting a few full scenes that draw focus toward the very question itself. In one of the best, a teacher asks Johnny’s class what they’d like to do with their futures. Common answers include bull riding and farming, but a few students want to be veterinarians or lawyers. Zhao cuts between the responses with a perceptive eye for lingering on facial expressions that reveal the students’ uncertainty, so that the scene revolves on complex questions of irretrievable innocence. The passage works because of its accumulation of details, which results from a sensible evaluation of a sustained moment.
Unfortunately, Zhao lapses into an overdetermined poetic structure that reduces Johnny’s hardships to fleetingly precious evocations of hardship. When the teen’s father is killed in a fire, the filmmaker places the moment off screen and relies on a fragmenting of time and space to relish how Johnny’s mother, Lisa (Irene Bedard), shrinks at hearing the news. Other passages follow a similar storytelling method of fragmenting time and action; as Johnny walks down a dirt road toward his truck, a cut places him against a pickup and next to his sister, Jashaun (Jashaun St. John), who sits solemnly in the truck’s bed. Later, Johnny and his friends fire guns in one shot and exhale smoke onto a captured field cricket in the next.
As characters come and go within scenes without proper introduction, the film becomes side-tracked by its own mythos as a tragic celebration of circumstance. Inevitably, given Zhao’s pursuit of hard-knocks conflict, Johnny’s true test isn’t himself, but the bare-knuckled gauntlet of blows he must undertake as a rite of passage into adulthood. That includes lessons from brother Kevin (Kevin Hunter), a jailbird who reassures his mother that he’s “been going to church” and that “it’s helping.” Instead of further exploring Kevin’s struggle and situating it with relation to Johnny’s own insecurities, Zhao hop-skips to the next of the film’s dourly emoted moments. Before long, one realizes Songs My Brothers Taught Me, with its melancholic and ever-present piano score by Peter Golub, is more taken by its own formal composition than enunciating the musical edification promised by its title.