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Songs My Brothers Taught Me

Set in our time on the Pine Ridge reservation, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” is about the people who get left behind.  Not in the apocalyptic sense, but in ordinary, every day ways.  The film is full of aftermath scenes – the charred sticks, that remain after a house fire, or the beer cans strewn on the basement floor after a party. The fairgrounds after the rodeo has come and gone.  Almost all of these scenes are encountered by Dakota Brown, who is 11 but pretends like she’s 13, a kid on a pink bike who must piece together, out of the debris and the detritus, what happened and what it means for her life.

Dakota’s father dies near the beginning of the film.  She barely knew him. He was a locally famous bull rider and a ladies’ man; he had 25 children with 9 different women.  It’s darkly humorous when they all gather together for his funeral, each carrying a puzzle piece of their father, trying to put them all together and figure out who he really was.

Johnny (John Reddy) is Dakota’s father figure, an older brother she’s grown up with. These two have taken care of each other from a young age. But Johnny is trying hard not to get left behind; his girlfriend (Taysha Fuller) is headed off to college in California, and he’s determined to go with her, though he doesn’t have a car, a job or a place to stay. None of that bothers him much; he’ll figure it out. What does bother him, though, is that going with her means leaving Dakota behind. For Johnny, the choice is either leave someone you love or get left by someone you love.

At first, I thought “Songs My Brother Taught Me” was going to be yet another artsy “slice of life” film about life on the reservation, the kind that always feel like they’re made for outsiders. But as its layers started to reveal themselves to me, I saw a deeply insightful film, one that those living on the reservation might relate to.  It’s a film about the tension between leaving and staying. Staying on the land you love, with the people you love, in a place where hope is a rare commodity, or leaving – for the city, for the rodeo circuit, for the grave and the world beyond.  It’s about the combination of joy and sadness when you see someone leave, and the same combination when you see them stay.


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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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