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Songs My Brothers Taught Me
When she received a nomination for Best Director for Nomadland back in 2020, Chloe Zhao became only the seventh woman ever nominated for the award, and would go onto become the first woman of color to win. As a result of this historic achievement, Kino has released a Blu-ray of her debut feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me. Like Nomadland and her second feature, The Rider, the film finds Zhao integrating her camera into an existing community and culture, telling a story largely based on the lives of the people playing the characters (most of whom are first-time or non-professional actors).
Johnny Winters (John Reddy) is a young man thinking about his future outside of Pine Ridge, the Lakota reservation where he grew up. His girlfriend, Aurelia (Taysha Fuller), is moving to Los Angeles to attend college, and Johnny has decided to go with her. To make money, he illegally sneaks alcohol onto the reservation and sells it to other residents, and he uses that money to buy a used truck. However, he resists telling his mother (Irene Bedard) and his younger sister Jashuan (Jashaun St. John) about his plans, knowing that his mother is unreliable and that his sister will be devastated. The situation takes a turn for the worse when Johnny's absentee father (who is father to 24 other children with various mothers) dies in a house fire, leaving his mother and sister in a fragile emotional state.
Zhao's approach to Nomadland raised some eyebrows, with the integration of a movie star like Frances McDormand into real nomad communities prompting questions about the line between authenticity and voyeurism. Songs is more convincing, both because the story is more personal, and also because class feels like a secondary concern (if still a concern). The focus here is less on examining the culture and understanding how it functions, and more on the relationship between Johnny and Jashuan, and both of their relationships with their many siblings, whose experiences and interests are wildly different. The cultural atmosphere of Pine Ridge is still important, but it feels like the kind of small town that appears in many coming-of-age dramas.
The strongest element of the film is the performances by both Reddy and St. John, who both give impressively relaxed and natural performances. The pair have an unforced chemistry and personality that fits very well with the mood and tone that Zhao is going for. The film is sensitive to both characters' complex emotions at their respective turning points in their lives, and Zhao never feels compelled to underline their scenes with unnecessary dialogue or overbearing music. Eleonore Hendricks also stands out as a woman in a relationship with Johnny's father's best friend Bill, who may also have some feelings for Johnny. Only Irene Bedard's part as Johnny and Jashuan's mother feels a little underdeveloped.
Although the film is well-made, it also feels a little simple. The film's dramatic twists and turns are pretty standard for the story, and while the characters are interesting to watch, the movie's momentum is passive, with little in the way of payoff. Zhao leans on voice-over at the beginning and the end of the film to give the movie more of a dramatic arc, but it feels artificial. It would be far more interesting to wrestle with the smaller and more specific conflicts, such as Johnny feeling conflicted about being friends with kids his age with alcoholic parents when he sells booze as a side hustle, or more with his brother in prison. Other moments, such as Jashuan flinching at a sermon about fire shortly after she visits the remains of her dad's home are striking in their emotional power. Zhao's got something here, but the film doesn't fully harness it.
Kino brings Songs My Brothers Taught Me to Blu-ray with the original poster art intact. An image of Jashaun is seen, as if it were a photo behind one that had been torn away, with the overlaid image featuring the brothers. The title and Chloe Zhao's credit appear in white in a hand-written style, with the title surrounded by "7"s (something that is explained in the film). There are also some critical pull quotes and a banner mentioning Zhao's Oscar win. The back cover is Kino's standard text and photo blocks, although the purple sky backdrop from the front cover continues around to the back. The one-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Songs My Brothers Taught Me is presented in 1.78:1 1080p AVC with DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 audio tracks, as well as English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing. This is a solid presentation all around, with the transfer effectively capturing the movie's digital photography with impressive precision. Large portions of the film take place at night, and I did not notice any issues with banding or artifacts. Colors are natural and striking in the right light, and fine detail is outstanding throughout the presentation. The film has a very naturalistic mix with a small amount of low-key music, and the mix captures all of this with ease. As is to be expected, this is not an especially flashy mix, but it sounds good. Subtitles are also pretty good, although it feels like a real oversight that any dialogue not in English is simply not subtitled.
All of the extras are ported over from Kino's 2016 DVD edition, including a blooper reel (4:01), six deleted scenes (9:35 -- annoyingly, there is no "play all" option), and an interview with director Chloe Zhao (11:38). All of the extras are presented in HD.
An original theatrical trailer for Songs My Brothers Taught Me is also included.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me is an interesting debut, even when it is not a completely effective one. Fans of Zhao's subsequent two features will likely enjoy the movie, as it follows the same template (her 2021 MCU feature The Eternals, not so much). Those with the DVD will also find this a worthwhile upgrade. Lightly recommended.
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