As obnoxious as this is, I will be heavily comparing this film to another of director Chloé Zhao’s I’ve seen—The Rider—for reasons I will get into.
June 2018. I’m bored and want to see a film at my local theater. Nothing really interests me, but one title stands out, for whatever reason. The Rider. I had never heard of it nor director Zhao before, and after doing a quick check of Letterboxd ratings, I decided to give it a shot. I loved it, way more than I expected to. From that point, I made it a point to explore more of Zhao’s small discography—Songs My Brothers Taught Me was the film that came prior, so naturally I locked in on that. Now I’ve watched it!
It was a disappointment.
There may be reasons for this, outside of the quality I perceive it to have in my current state of mind. The story above showcases the phenomenon of “Going in blind and coming out enthused.” This time, I had expectations—large expectations. It’s not everyday I see a film that has me immediately enthused to know more from a director. Researching this film and how it’s like a mash-up of The Rider and Zhao’s newest piece, Nomadland, I was ready once again to be swept off my feet. As stated above, it did not turn out that way.
Another thing I’ll note is a criticism a reviewer I follow made about Nomadland, which I think wraps up my issues with this film perfectly. “Nothing really happens.” It’s pretty slice-of-life-like in nature, loosely following individuals in unfortunate circumstances perpetuated by varying forces that one can fill in with their own interpretations. Morally gray characters with tons of flaws, it’s a pretty “raw,” as some put it, take on those less fortunate. Zhao seems to have a fancy for showcasing moody movies.
Now, I did not have this drilled into my head while watching The Rider. But now that I think back on it, how much really did happen in that film? More importantly, does it matter? I’m now tempted to re-watch The Rider just to make sure—my curiosity will be the death of me. Songs My Brothers Taught Me did have this sort of weight to it that bogged down the pacing and ensured everything was appropriately brooding. I suppose with The Rider I felt there was more at stake, something more tangible to hang on to. Here… it’s like “Life is bad. But let’s make the most of it, maybe?”
Putting some of the disappointment aside, there are striking qualities to this that remind me of what I wanted to see more of from Zhao’s films. The cinematography is pretty solid, with a lot of nice sweeping shots of nature—however grayed out due to time and human corrosion. Characters were generally easy to sympathize with, though it’s nothing too out of the ordinary with those of a poor community. Kids doing sketchy things, smoking and drinking at every opportunity, trying to “get outta town”; the usual things.
Also like with The Rider, most of the actors here are untrained (I seem to be having a theme of that so far this month), with most playing fictional versions of themselves. Only two people among the cast are actual, credible actors. I don’t remember too much about awkward moments in The Rider, but there were definitely a few here that stuck out. Worse yet, one scene involved a dramatic encounter between brother and sister that was supposed to be sad; I only thought, “Yeesh, that could’ve used another take.” Strangely enough, one of the more experienced actors felt more professional in their portrayal of their character than anyone else. And by that I mean it seemed like she was trying too hard. T’was off.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me suffers from what I mentioned above, though as the film dragged on, I kind of wondered if it was all too disjointed. The Rider wasn’t exactly a one-man show, but the male lead basically held all the cards and was the focus throughout the entire film, allowing for the viewer to constantly follow through his personal journey. This film has tons of characters of varying importance. A family of three, an extended family, the potential additions to family through love or commitment; the plot seems to go from one thing to another. It might be biting off more than it can chew.
Perhaps the point of the “slice-of-life” nature of the film is so that it doesn’t need to tell a story in a traditional fashion. It can simply showcase these scenes that have minimal relevance to one another to fill in the bigger picture. Life in this reservation is kind of shoddy (maybe an understatement), and these are the things that its residents do to keep afloat, to keep alive. Occasionally gripping, I did find myself kind of wishing these was a “main” thing to really connect with, whether it was one character (the male lead came the closest) or one plotline.
Another thing said reviewer brought up with Nomadland was its use of music. I hear of this criticism directed a lot at more mainstream films, where dramatic/sad moments are accompanied by a slow, woodwind score that basically screams, “BE SAD!!!” I kind of felt that way here, as the soundtrack was occasionally melodramatic. Silence or natural ambience is incorporated somewhat, if I recall correctly. I only wish it were used more consistently.
Unfortunate as it is, I know that Zhao can do more. This was an earlier work, and I’ll have to watch Nomadland (and re-watch The Rider) to ascertain if my initial enthusiasm wasn’t a fluke in judgment. My only fear is that she’ll simply do the same things over and over because she’s become comfortable with it; at least there’s The Eternals coming up (I may watch it… just for her involvement). Songs My Brothers Taught Me didn’t hit me nearly as hard as The Rider did, but what it lacked in coherence it made up for with heart.
Final Score: 5.5/10
The rating for all other films can be found at Letterboxd.
For more, check out the March of the Movies Archive!