Oscars 2021: Revisiting Nomadland director Chloe Zhao's delicate debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me
In many ways, Chloe Zhao’s first film is the spiritual predecessor to her third, the Oscar-nominated Nomadland.
In many ways, Chloe Zhao’s first film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, is the spiritual predecessor to her third, the Oscar-nominated Nomadland.
Nomadland lyrically explores the meaning of home through a community of modern-day nomads drifting across the US' post-recession gig economy. The protagonist is a newly widowed lady, Fern (Frances McDormand), who admits she was never a “settler” – always moving, always restless for new experiences – but still chose to spend her adult life in her husband’s small town because he was a happy man there. He loved the place, and it loved him back.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a ruminative drama set in an Indian Reservation town in South Dakota. It explores the meaning of home through a Native American community sidelined by the nation’s mainstream economy. The couple from Nomadland, whose story is only sensed but never seen, is essentially reincarnated as a brother-sister pair in this film.
This is likely the past that Fern refers to. The restless one is a high-school graduate, Johnny Winters (John Reddy), who is wrestling with his grand plan of moving away to Los Angeles with his girlfriend. He is seduced by the allure of what lies beyond. The settler is his 12-year-old sister, Jashaun (a luminous Jashaun St John), who consumes everything in Pine Ridge Reservation with childlike curiosity. She feels like a part of the land, and the land becomes an extension of her. She does not want her brother to leave. She adores him. The death of their absentee father – a man who also fathered 27 other children from nine different women – triggers Johnny’s imminent departure, but also leaves him conflicted about abandoning his baby sister. The umbilical cord is strong.
The American-Dream template is a familiar one. The protagonist is often a dreamer, a misfit who strives to be uprooted in pursuit of greener pastures. Most of Songs My Brothers Taught Me is designed to evoke a similar graph – it even opens with a metaphor of wild horses. When in an open field, Johnny sees himself as a Terrence Malick character: lens flares, magic light, melancholic music, a bottomless heart, maybe even a whispery voiceover. The community, in comparison, feels small and small-minded – most of his classmates are his half-brothers; the boys hope to become cowboys one day; he bootlegs to support his single-parent family; prohibition drives the locals to alcoholism and prison; rodeos are the only source of entertainment. His gaze of the crabby little community is what new-age storytellers often use to present a breaking-free story. Home, for those like Johnny, is not a place but a time to be left behind.
But perhaps the enduring significance of Zhao’s legacy so far is that her narratives refuse to condescend on the past to promise the future.
They resist and embrace the frog-in-pond arc at once, beautifully laying bare all its complexities and contradictions. Johnny’s girlfriend, Aurelia, a girl who has tasted the big-city life, is the one that movies are made about: She is a visitor in her own memories, an indictment of the stubborn stillness she grew up in. The seasoned viewer is conditioned to favour her, and judge those who “succumb” to their roots and withstand a sense of forwardness. But films like Songs My Brothers Taught Me find a bittersweet symphony in their existence – people on the periphery do not always resign to their fates, they also subscribe to them. They might look like regressive tragedies to the outside world, but every other generation, some good eggs redefine the nest instead of leaving it. Some of them choose to mesh their individualism with the plurality of where they belong. Fern’s husband might have done the same, and Zhao’s empathic palette suggests that there is no shame in it. Preserving a people is not limited to protecting their identity so much as reframing it.
As a result, while Johnny looks at his surroundings in a certain way, it is Jashaun who restores balance to the internalism of the film – she tries to know her late father through the people he knew, the things he did, and the spaces he frequented. Feeling betrayed by Johnny, she finds solace in her half-brothers, befriends a tattoo artist, and attempts to understand the environment that Johnny is so keen to depart. The two spend most of the film apart in their own divergent bubbles, practicing a sense of separation, but also embodying the two disparate cinematic languages of a culture that is too embedded in the texts of national history to dignify the subtext of personal history.
The imagery is thoughtful: The fire that Johnny experiences is raging and violent (the father died in one, his truck is burnt by a rival bootlegging gang), but the one that Jashaun sees in the end is hopeful, rooted in customs, circularity, and celebration. The sole sex scene in the film feels more like a reclamation of rights than a consummation of first love. The presence of nonprofessional actors ensures that the characters on screen are not used to being in the spotlight – somewhat awkward, mumbling their way into the corners – in turn mirroring their discomfort as a people scrutinised by the lens of modern society. Some call it naturalism, others call it dramatic non-fiction.
When the mother learns of her husband’s death early in the film, the moment is unfussy and matter-of-factly, bereft of punctuation and gravitas – a drop in an ocean of living. A funeral is followed by a bonfire; it passes. The reason, we suspect later, is not just a community conditioned to the mundanity of loss, but also the fact that an outdated idea of Native Indian living dies with the man who sustained it. From the ashes of its slow-burning emerges the purpose of the film. Jashaun is perhaps not looking to take the baton so much as bury it with respect – a truth that only her brother can see, and one that only he can enable. His nomadland is not going anywhere, but his conflict will be recorded for posterity. After all, home is a private preposition in a world of social adjectives. The songs taught here express a relation to bigger elements and broader worlds. It is the melody that must linger; it is the sound that must matter.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me is now streaming on MUBI.
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