Gina Gammel and Riley Keough’s debut feature focuses on two Oglala Lakota teenagers as they come of age in South Dakota.
Who has the right to play steward to someone else’s story? It’s an unavoidable question in the conversation surrounding War Pony, a slice-of-life work of neorealism set on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, performed by non-professional actors cribbed from the Oglala Lakota community, and intended to broadcast the realities of its milieu to a wider audience without sugarcoating or gawking at its coarser aspects.
It’s a dicey undertaking for the tyro directorial team of Gina Gammell and Riley Keough, the latter weighing her lap-of-lux upbringing against her Cherokee and Creek heritage bequeathed via her maternal grandfather (Elvis Presley, of ‘being Elvis Presley’ fame.)
But she’s appropriately self-conscious about the whiff of nepotism she gives off, and she’s done everything in her power to supersede it on this well-measured, quasi-ethnographical look at a little-depicted corner of America. She and Gammell have joined forces with credited co-scriptwriters Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob, a pair Keough met and bonded with as day players during the shoot for the similarly loose, troublemaking American Honey.
Where Andrea Arnold’s foreign perspective on poverty in the United States constantly slipped into the poor-nographic, however, the directors and their crucial collaborators avoid the obviousness of melodrama at every turn as they shade in the details on lives that are difficult without being miserable.
We get the lay of the land by following two of its typical residents, the tweenaged Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder) and the older Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting), grown enough to have sired a couple bouncing baby boys with different yet equally fed-up-with-his-shit local girls. Despite the difference in their ages, our protagonists do a lot of the same stuff; dick around with their buddies, get high enough to forget how boring their town is, make money however they can (mostly by selling anything of worth they can get their hands on). Meth has infested the area’s crowded split-level homes, though Matho and Bill both know enough to position themselves on the more lucrative, less lethal side of the dealer-user dichotomy.
Each one faces a modest helping of tribulation that stops short of the narrative punishments often heaped upon characters like this in comparable films. Matho gets smacked around by the dad who doesn’t think twice about sharing a blunt with his barely adolescent son, both behaviours left un-judged by an observant camera reluctant to stylise.
Bill works for a sleazebag white farm owner whose palpable racism never overreaches into a theatrical register, even if the writing for his wine-slugging wife skirts the leaden villainy blessedly absent from the rest of the film. A confrontation regarding Bill’s labor around the turkey factory comes closest to breaking with the careful naturalism, but that’s easily overlooked in light of the cathartic climax it cues up for the next scene.
That flash of triumph has been cannily set to ‘Come and Get Your Love’ by the indigenous funk outfit Redbone, a smaller expression of the directors’ dedication to honouring a culture in which they’re limited to respectful visitation. Their focus on ceremony and spirituality avoids the pitfalls of exotification simply by being quiet and following the lead of the real people gracious enough to share themselves.
Ultimately, that’s the greatest virtue of Keough and Gammell’s approach: collaboration, the ability to decentralise their own perspectives and be subsumed by someone else’s. For Keough in particular — who’s put as much space as possible between herself and the upper crust into which she was born by bringing depth to ‘white trash’ with her American Honey and Zola roles — it feels like the culmination of a lifelong project that’s only just beginning in earnest.
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Published 23 May 2022
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