With Songs My Brother Taught Me, a melancholic meditation on Native life emerges

There are moments in life when one can come to feel stagnant and restless. Amidst a sense of hopelessness, some people dream of a better life. But, time often passes and such dreams feel out of reach. Then, one comes upon an inflection point. When that moment arrives, one can be plunged into an existential crisis and, eventually, propelled into action in order to bring the crisis to a resolution.

In Songs My Brothers Taught Me, the protagonist, John, finds himself at just such a moment. Although his existential crisis is a quiet one, John’s restlessness and indecisiveness are palpable to the astute viewer. Life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota feels just as desolate as the Badlands that surround the area. With an absent father, a dispirited mother, and loose connections to his numerous brothers, John clearly wants more out of his life. But his hastily hatched plan to move to Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Aurelia, never quite feels fully satisfying. John’s only meaningful connection to his little sister, Jashaun, looms large in the background of the narrative. Neither person ever initiates a direct conversation about the impending move, except for when Jashaun exclaims, “I hate you” to her brother.

As the critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes reads, Songs My Brother Taught Me is a “naturalistic drama that quietly earns its emotional resonance.” Some critics often subtly attack the slow pace of such dramas despite the obvious benefit a slower pace has in conveying the intensity of the emotional landscape within the narrative. One such critic described the film as “unemphatic” and mused that some viewers will find themselves “wishing it possessed just a little more oomph.” Another critic reports that the “plot is wafer thin” and suggests that “it might not be a bad idea to down a few caffeine-rich drinks before settling in to watch.” Though it would be unfair to summarily dismiss those critics, particularly because those reviews also have some positive things to say, such commentary feels like a bit of a punch to the gut to those who appreciate the aesthetic choices evident in these types of films. In a world filled with films that assault the senses with jump cuts, computer-generated imagery, and the like, one can’t help but wonder if we’ve lost the art of watching a story unfold slowly on screen. Mindfulness is a buzzword these days, but one could argue that films like this force us to be more mindful. They encourage us to focus our attention without technical assistance. In short, these films force us to become better viewers.

Viewers who appreciate the beauty of desolate landscapes and the richness of naturalistic performances will love this film. Such viewers may even want to grab that cup of coffee recommended by the critic above, not because they will feel the need to stay awake, but to savor both what they are tasting and what they are seeing in real-time; to have a genuine experience. This film is now showing on MUBI, a curated streaming service for cinephiles.