The Plot: On the Pine Ridge Reservation, life goes on its daily grind for the Native American population. 23-year-old Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) has two young kids and a trail of women in his wake. He makes ends meet by selling poodles and delivering goods, eventually working for white rancher Tim (Sprague Hollander). He also has some side hustles and with his mother in jail, he’s realistic about life on the reservation. Meanwhile, 12-year-old Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder) is thrown out of his house. With no parental influence, he resorts to a life of juvenile crime to keep himself going. Matho is going to have to grow up a little faster, while Bill will have to slow down if he really wants a shot at the American Dream…
The Verdict: Films about the Native American population are often viewed from the outside looking in, presumably in order to anchor an audience unfamiliar with life on their self-contained reservations (e.g. Wind River). War Pony is something of a corrective to that, instead taking the perspective from the inside looking around. What it looks like is something closer to an authentic representation of reservation life, built from the ground up by the filmmakers with writers and representatives from the Oglala Lakota Nation. Co-writer Bill Reddy describes his stories of reservation life as being like war stories, covering a lot of events over a short period of time. The focus here is on a cocky young man and a streetwise child on the cusp of becoming a teenager. They don’t know each other, but they have a shared experience in dealing with hardship and broken families. Their two stories will come to define them.
It’s a potentially tricky subject to tackle for Gina Gammell and actor Riley Keough in their feature co-directing debut. Go too deep and it might paint an unflattering portrait of the Oglala Lakota Nation as a crime-ridden society within another society. Go too light and it might come across as sugar-coated about the harsher realities of life there. Gammell and Keough have found that sweet spot between them, bringing out the necessary darkness but tempering it with the lightness and joy of being young and aspirational. This is ultimately what makes this film work well enough to become accessible for those not familiar with this enclosed community. There’s a sharply-observed contrast and similarity in the lifestyles of Bill and Matho, a generation apart but each still finding their way through the messiness of life.
The reservation is a place like any other – people fall in love, argue, break up, have children, find jobs, resort to desperate measures to make ends meet. There’s also a political element at work involving a rich white landowner whose prosperity contrasts with the natives around him, though the writers and directors don’t overplay this point. Perhaps it’s enough to suggest that the film is a microcosm of America itself. There’s an admirable grittiness to it which is honest about life on the fringes of American society, far from the bling of 5th Avenue or the flashiness of Venice Beach. There’s a tenderness to the direction which admires these two young Lakota males close up, an almost motherly approach from Gammell and Keough.
The story weaves in and out like the procession of funeral cars in one key sequence, so it can come across as being unfocused at times and not having a complete narrative thrust. However, the co-directors compensate by eliciting fine performances from their newcomer leads set against the scenic backdrop of South Dakota. War Pony is a small film that casts a light on a little-depicted corner of America, but it has a big heart full of youthful hope and moves to its own distinctive beat. Worth seeking out.