Deja vu: in Chloé Zhao’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, a young boy, caught between two love interests, wants to get off a reserve, goes off on his own to stare existentially at nature, loves but distances himself from his family, is involved in alcohol and drug dealing, passes by crumbling houses, discontent life, circles around thoughts of escape and money he needs to escape and can’t imagine a way out. You could say Zhao and Jones are tapping into similar true-life stories, but despite an effort to find authenticity, both are applying conventional narratives, the stop-start poverty-decline type, onto something much larger. Zhao’s working methods come from an American semi-tradition: working with casting director Eleanore Hendricks (a collaborator with the Safdies, Nathan Silver, and Benh Zeitlin, among others), using documentary techniques, small, interstitial moments of unpredictable activity emerge, are extracted, and edited together into an impressionist collage of “moments” — how they flow together can either add up to something expansive, unsummarizable, or look like a movie that cuts around an unplanned narrative, unsustained performances, or scenes that otherwise would just fall apart, which is closer to the effect here.
In any case, Zhao, who spent years among the people living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (located within South Dakota), and who cast a number of people, including the two main characters of Songs (brother Johnny and sister Jashaun), as playing versions of themselves, is, despite the specificity and unconventionality of what she captured, clearly aspires toward the work of Terrence Malick (by way of David Gordon Green): every single outdoor shot is taken during magic hour, under pastel blue skies, in open fields or heading toward them, kicking through the dust of their small town, by a handheld camera that holds people from the waist up in a roving mid-close up.
Malick’s films only seem to lack a narrative though, and so too does Zhao’s, who ends up conforming to a view of the world where kids don’t go to school, parents don’t go to work, and all are surrounded by a defeatist lack of energy — the camerawork here is a world away from Jones’ Fire Song (some delayed focus pulls, underlit night-time scenes), but, by the sixth time piano and violin force their way in, straining to pull together a disparate collection of plainspoken dialogue and bucolic images, it’s clear that what Zhao is trying to achieve, and what her film lacks, compared to Fire Song, is narrative urgency.
This is the outcome of a film with a visual plan, one that comes out of a desire to cleave closely to a point-of-view that is subjective, but not the director’s own — in the end those directorial choices still come through (including the cliches: one animal dismemberment scene, one distanced sex scene), and an essential part of documentary (or documentary-inspired fiction) filmmaking does not: a critical eye toward what leads up to the moment an artist enters a space, and what their presence causes to happen.