Off the back of awards darling Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s feature debut finally reaches UK screens six years after its initial release. Songs My Brothers Taught Me follows JaShaun Winters (JaShaun St. John) as her brother Johnny (John Reddy) prepares to leave South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation for an uncertain life in Los Angeles with his girlfriend. With an emotionally distant mother, the bond between siblings is close. This warmth and candour spreads through their interactions with their 23 half-siblings over the reservation, all of whom offer JaShaun and Johnny assistance on business ventures or conversations to remember their recently dead father, whose complicated legacy looms large. While Johnny’s choice drives the plot, JaShaun’s interpersonal explorations define the heart – and easily the most memorable moments – of the film.

Created as part of the Sundance Lab to develop Native American stories on film, Zhao’s background makes her an odd director and writer for the job. However, she works organically and collaboratively with the cast. Contrasting natural beauty against unsensationalised economic difficulty, she brings her signature observational style to the grand landscapes and indoor minutia of JaShaun’s life.

The film loses momentum as the story builds to the formulaic choice of Johnny’s departure, with the typical home temptations – a new job, a potential replacement girlfriend, and of course his sister’s wishes – that line themselves up in his path. But the goodwill fostered for these children chasing dreams of the known and unknown lends weight to their choices that the drama alone does not earn.

In 2021, the blueprint for Zhao’s empathy-filled storytelling and affinity for rural American stories is clearly found in Songs My Brothers Taught Me. Despite an over-reliance on formula, the film’s understated central performances and loving rapport between JaShaun and her brothers makes its reflection on new legacies a poignant one.



CAST: Jashaun St. John, John Reddy, Taysha Fuller, Irene Bedard

DIRECTOR: Chloé Zhao

WRITER: Chloé Zhao

SYNOPSIS: Siblings Johnny and JaShaun Winters bond with their extended family and make choices about their futures on the Pine Ridge Reservation