A hit at last year’s Cannes, War Pony is set in the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota, within the Indigenous community that lives there.
It focuses on two loosely-connected stories: Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting), a young father trying to hustle his way into a better situation; and Matho (Ladainian Crazy Thunder), whose abusive relationship with his father leads him to start dealing drugs. The story behind the film is an interesting one.
Actor Riley Keough was inspired to tell the story of two Indigenous extras (Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy) she met while filming 2018’s American Honey. Directing alongside producing partner Gina Gammell, some might raise an eyebrow at two non-Indigenous women telling another community’s story (Gammell is from London, Keough is the California-born granddaughter of Elvis).
What allays those fears is the way in which the filmmakers let their characters speak for themselves. The camera follows Bill and Matho with curiosity, not judgement, and roams between the leads as the mood takes them. It’s a relaxed, authentic feeling journey, albeit one without a clear destination. The audience is invited to hang out with characters, in the manner of Richard Linklater films like Dazed and Confused or Before Sunset, rather than making any grandiose point or racing to a conclusion.
Themes like the damage of careless parenting, or the fixation on a quick financial fix (in Bill’s case, a plan to breed poodles), are examples of the story’s ability to connect on a human level. For audiences raised on a traditional beginning-middle-end narrative, there can be a restlessness trying to work out what pieces click together.
However, the actors and script (co-written by Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob) quickly ease you into this different perspective. In just under two hours, you begin to care and agonise at the decisions of the two young men, wanting the best for them but knowing where their paths might lead. It’s a human story that doesn’t ask for sympathy, just for new voices to be heard.
War Pony’s aimlessness is both a plus and minus. But if you can tune in to the rhythms of the characters, you’ll find a thoughtful and original story from directors with promise.