Riley Keough’s Tender Reservation Tales – The Hollywood Reporter


Riley Keough's Tender Reservation Tales - The Hollywood Reporter

One version of the story of the Oglala Lakota tribe begins like many origin stories—with spirits at war and an earth still in the making. It is an intriguing tale in which said spirits lure people from their underground lairs to the surface of the earth before the creator is done. It ends with the humans being transformed into the first herd of bison, creatures created to guide the humans as they populate the Creator’s masterpiece.

Bison, which represent food, survival and community in the Oglala Lakota tradition, play a major role war ponyan intimate feature film debut directed by Riley Keough (Zola) and her collaborator Gina Gammell. It’s a slow-burning film that keeps you entertained with its constant observations of the small triumphs and big pitfalls of Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting), a goofy 23-year-old Oglala Lakota man trying to make ends meet, and Matho (Ladainian Crazy Thunder), a 12-year-old desperate for his father’s approval. The result of many years of cooperation, war pony is also a moving experiment in collective narrative filmmaking – an example of how stories can honor rather than exploit.

war pony

The final result

Intimate and captivating.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Pour: Jojo Baptiste Whiting, Ladainian Crazy Thunder, Jesse Schmockel, Wilma Colhoff, Iona Red Bear
Directors: Gina Gammell, Riley Keough
Screenwriters: Franklin Sioux Bob, Bill Reddy, Riley Keough, Gina Gammell

1 hour 55 minutes

Gammell and Keough, with the help of Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, have written a coming-of-age film brimming with loving community stories. Similar to Hulu’s TV series Reservation dogs, war pony uses interlocking storylines as portals to a broader, moving account of the people of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The humble film begins with Bill thinking about how to make some money. After learning the value of the abandoned poodle he brought back, Bill decides to become a breeder. He buys the dog back from its owner for $900. Bill is excited. For him (and really only him) the plan is promising. He is the father of two young children; The mother of his first child is in prison and the mother of his second is mad at him. Money won’t solve all of Bill’s problems, but it will make them easier to overcome. While he is dreaming, a bison appears. Before Bill can understand the apparition, the majestic creature stalks off the screen.

Matho also needs money, but for different reasons. The child is obsessed with forging a hypermasculine identity and exhibiting a sort of uneasy boasting. We meet him riding around the neighborhood with his friends, rushing around and committing petty theft. His plan to make money is to siphon off his father’s meth stash and sell it to addicts in the neighborhood.

war pony darts confidently back and forth between Bill and Matho’s stories. The transitions are fluid: the camera follows Matho and his friends into a petrol station supermarket, only to leave the scene with Bill. These sequences – recorded by DP David Gallego and edited by Affonso Gonçalves and Eduardo Serrano – reveal the rules of Pine Ridge. What initially looks like a hectic culture is actually a culture of mutual help. This is a community where everyone knows each other, even if not everyone does know each other When an elderly community member spots Matho and his friends shoplifting, she pays for her stash of candy before the owner has time to get upset.

At the gas station, Bill meets Echo (Jesse Schmockel), his current girlfriend and the mother of his second child. He flirts and tries to tell her about the poodle story. She rolls her eyes and wants to know why he’s not there. Whiting plays Bill with an understated gentleness. His eyes search Echo’s face as he whispers, “Are you mad at me?” and follow her swaying hips as she exits the store. There is something puppy-like about Bill’s personality that suggests a deep kindness and loyalty to his people.

war ponyThe story picks up speed when Bill meets Tim (Sprague Hollander), a wealthy turkey farm owner who lives off the reservation. The latter has a flat tire and asks the former for a ride to his house where he can get help. After realizing that Tim, a married man, drove off the reservation with a minor, Bill uses this information for a job. In return for his discretion, Tim gives Bill work at his home and factory.

Back on the reservation, Matho is in big trouble. His father (Franklin Sioux Bob) knows about his drug heist, leading to a tense exchange. In a moment of unbridled anger, Matho’s father throws him out. Now homeless, the boy must fend for himself. He stays with friends before ending up on a reservation with other orphans.

Tension builds war pony makes his way to a combustible finish. Bill and Matho find themselves in increasingly tricky situations from which they have to maneuver their way out. Objects are stolen, people are beaten, things are set on fire. Between these dramatic scenes, Gammell and Keough treat viewers to crisp and mesmerizing shots of the landscapes surrounding Pine Ridge. The bison sightings of the two protagonists are also becoming more frequent, as if the creatures were desperate to send a message.

War pony offers a modest portrait of reservation life while avoiding excessive sentimentalism. The history of indigenous peoples in America is brutal, marked by violence, genocide and land grabs. The Oglala Lakota tribe, like other colonization-affected peoples, faces the challenge of recovering from damage while living in systems that sustain them. war pony folds this reality into its tender story, exploring issues such as drug addiction, food apartheid, corporate greed, and the type of invisibility and exploitation that indigenous girls face.

There are moments when war pony Slack – the result of one too many fill-in scenes and a few sequences that reinforce simple observations of how native culture is treated by white people. But these cases don’t dramatically detract from the central story of Bill, Matho, and their community. They are small bumps in a journey that reflects real effort and collaboration.

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