Friday 9 April 2021

Home on the range: "Songs My Brothers Taught Me"

With Nomadland still on the horizon for UK audiences - now set for cinemas May 17, after previewing on Disney+ April 30 - MUBI are giving a belated runout to its director Chloé Zhao's feature debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me, from 2015. From the off, it would appear Zhao was pushing for a hybrid form of cinema, neither 100% drama nor documentary, one that fashions something loosely fictionalised from whatever Zhao finds on her travels. On her first pass, this was the tattered remnants of a family living on a reservation in the American plains: father in the ground, eldest son behind bars, leaving a crumpled mom (Irene Bedard, previously the voice of Disney's Pocahontas) to raise a close-knit pair of teenage siblings. Johnny (John Reddy) is getting old enough to stand on his own two feet, instigating hook-ups with various local women, and making plans to move out; his little sister Jashaun (Jashaun St. John), whom the title would designate the film's protagonist, is starting to worry what will happen if her bro leaves her and her mother behind. Zhao is less overtly stylised - and far more softly spoken - in telling this story than, say, Alma Har'el, whose own hybrid of fiction and non-fiction (Bombay Beach, LoveTrue) was beginning to take root around the same moment. As in 2017's The Rider, there's a slightly tentative quality about the framing and some of the performances that suggests a director wondering how hard and far she might go with her choices. Still, you can absolutely see the filmmaker she wanted to be, and which she would very rapidly become: drawn towards the fringes and margins, no matter that - as here - these are sometimes found in something like the geographical middle, and most often drawn there at sundown, which takes the edge off some of the poverty. Even if you hadn't seen Nomadland, there would be enough here to position Zhao as the pre-eminent big-sky filmmaker of the moment. For a while back there, David Gordon Green appeared the keenest Malick scholar of modern American independent cinema; it might, in fact, be Zhao.

Which is not to say that Songs My Brothers Taught Me is entirely without first-film flaws. The Rider had a workable comeback narrative, but its casting was always slightly off for this viewer. Here, Zhao's casting is spot-on - be they pro or not, everyone assembled before this camera looks, sounds and acts the part - but her narrative proceeds in fits and starts. She's learnt to whittle down her hybrids: this early experiment sprouts in too many directions simultaneously to be easily contained, be those the explosive developments in Johnny's bootlegging sidehustle, the love triangle, or Jashaun's attraction to the rodeo that clearly fed into The Rider. (Zhao started to make choices, and she went with the handsome cowboy.) What holds the film together is its unrelenting wonder at being somewhere, and being somewhere perhaps the director, you and I have never been before. Whoever the location manager was here - there's no specific credit - they've gifted Zhao a tremendous itinerary of places with stories to tell and songs to sing: a living room that offers a flatscreen, a coal heater and a sheet slung over a window (and, bar some residual clutter, that's about it), a smalltown diner so ill-tended and underpopulated you wonder how on earth it can survive. If Zhao does have some Malick in her creative DNA, it's a Malick without the religiosity, grounded in the here and now by a certain hardscrabble poetry, and able to balance that magic-hour romanticism with something far earthier. When Johnny takes the diner's waitress to bed, we see him smearing her menstrual blood on the bedsheets. (And I began to wonder how much Larry McMurtry Zhao may have read.) However this director turned out, it's remarkable just how much of the movie that may win her major awards in the coming weeks was already present here - not least Zhao's adventurousness, her willingness to go off-reservation and properly mix it. I can reassure you that Nomadland is worth the wait; we'll wrestle with Zhao's decision to take the Marvel dollar (for the upcoming Eternals) in due course.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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