“War Pony is an incisive slice-of-life film that gives insight into the problems of life on these kinds of reservations, as well as exuding a warmth towards the communities living on them.”
Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is one of the US’ largest and poorest Indian reservations. With a staggering unemployment rate of over 80%, Pine Ridge struggles with many issues such as poverty and alcohol and drug abuse. It is also the historic location of one of America’s blackest stains when it comes to its relationship with Native Americans, the Wounded Knee Massacre. On the quintessential American prairie, Pine Ridge Reservation is one of the country’s biggest failures in trying to deal with its violent past.
It is here that directors Gina Gammell and Riley Keough situate the intertwined stories that make up their debut feature War Pony, which follows two young men as they try to navigate the harsh life on the reservation, consistently referred to as ‘The Rez’, and the road to manhood. Based on true stories and events told by friends over the years, War Pony mixes a deeply felt authenticity with some breathtaking vistas to create a slightly overlong film that nevertheless makes future directorial endeavours of Gammell and Keough, either together or on their own, something to look out for.
Will (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) is always on the lookout for a good hustle, after having already fathered two children with different mothers at a young age. His latest plan is to procure a poodle that showed up on his doorstep, so he can use the dog to breed and make cash off its puppies. When he meets a rich, white turkey farmer and helps him keep an illicit secret, Will manages to schmooze his way into a job. For a while, things are looking up for him: his new boss takes a liking to him, as does the man’s wife, and he also patches up with the mother of one of his sons. Yet he learns the hard way that his American dream will remain just that: a dream.
Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder) lives with his single, alcoholic dad. He does what most boys do in their early teens: hanging with his buddies, riding their bikes, and starting to show an interest in girls. But under peer pressure Matho takes a wrong turn. He steals drugs from his dad to sell on the streets, and things move from bad to worse when his dad dies in an accident. Just as he seems destined to fall into the same traps as his father, a joyriding accident gives Matho the epiphany to turn his life around.
The stunning landscape, gorgeously lensed by David Gallego, at times reminds one of Chloe Zhao’s breakthrough film The Rider, a film that was also set on and around Pine Ridge. But the recent film War Pony probably feels closest to is Andrea Arnold’s 2016 Cannes competition title American Honey (which notably features Keough in a supporting role). Like that film, which follows a young magazine sales crew across the Midwest, War Pony is an honest, lived-in portrayal of young people on the edge of society, played by a cast of mostly non-professionals who act so natural one is tempted to think a lot of the scenes are improvised.
Will and Matho’s stories don’t truly intersect until one of War Pony‘s last scenes, but they are connected by a matriarch figure in the form of an older woman who runs a shelter for kids in need of a roof, a place where both of them end up at various points in the film. As dysfunctional as the whole community seems, the way people inside the reservation look out for each other instils an image of community and is one of the factors that lends War Pony its strong sense of realism. Both Will and Matho having an encounter with an American buffalo at opposite ends of the film drives this idea home, when connected to a slogan seen earlier in the film that says buffalo hunters are brave and generous because they feed their community.
The screenplay, written by Gammell in cooperation with Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, leaves room for improvement; some scenes feel drawn out or have little impact, and especially the sleazy white antagonist is somewhat of a cliché. But both stories ooze authenticity, compounded by incredibly naturalistic performances by the lead actors and the rest of the cast, and overall War Pony is an incisive slice-of-life film that gives insight into the problems of life on these kinds of reservations, as well as exuding a warmth towards the communities living on them.