Where the Buffalo Roam
War Pony successfully walks a narrow line
First-time directors Gina Gammell and Riley Keough have been working on their naturalistic drama War Pony for quite some time now and their hesitation is understandable. Other filmmakers like Sean Baker and Chloe Zhao who have tackled stories like this have been accused of "poverty tourism" or worse, exploiting a marginalized culture for awards recognition. They avoid these accusations by hiring two Lakota men whom Keough met while filming American Honey as co-writers for the film. The story is loosely based on their own experiences resulting in a thoughtful, humanist tale that thankfully avoids melodramatic excess.
The film is set on the Pine Ridge Reservation and follows the stories of two Lakota boys: Bill (Jojo Babteise Whiting), a young man looking for regular work to provide for his two sons, and Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder), a 12-year old boy who gets mixed up in criminal activity. Their intertwining stories simultaneously deal with family, loss, and their own culture in both the "Res" and the larger world that still exploits the bodies and labor of Indigenous people.
More a slice-of-life story than a traditional narrative, Gammell and Keough are interested in presenting life as-is for these characters and letting the audience connect with their circumstances naturally. The authenticity of the film says much about the co-writers' involvement and the heavy hand of directorial control is rarely felt (until the film's silly ending), letting the characters' lives just play out for us. This technique is hard to do well, and their inexperience as filmmakers sometimes shows, but these types of films are important as snapshots of a time and a people. That is what movies were made for.
War Pony is now playing in select theaters and is available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube.
Directed by Gina Gammell and Riley Keough // Written by Gammell, Keough, Franklin Sioux Bob, and Bill Reddy // Starring Jojo Babteise Whiting, LaDainian Crazy Thunder, Robert Stover, Ashley Shelton, Iona Red Bear, Ta-Yammi Long Black Cat, Wilma Colhof, Jeremy Corbin Cottier, Woodrow Lone Elk, Sprague Hollander, Jesse Schmockel, and Stanley Good Voice Elk // Momentum Pictures // 115 minutes // Rated R