Riley Keough and Gina Gammell are part of a surprisingly large number of female directors, 11, with films in the Un Certain Regard section at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. But the takeaway from “War Pony,” which premiered at Cannes on Saturday afternoon, isn’t that it’s the work of female voices; it’s that the female voices who directed this quiet drama are letting indigenous voices tell their own stories.
Set on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and co-written, co-produced and starring members of the Native American community, “War Pony” is unhurried, naturalistic and heartbreaking, taking its rhythms from the lives of characters in a situation where the lack of options can lead to desperation or to resignation. The movie sometimes feels as aimless as moments in the lives of the characters it depicts, but that helps give it the intimacy of a story told from the inside, not the outside.
The film is set in an impoverished community on the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota reservation, where it tells the casually interlocking stories of Bill (Jojo Baptiese Whiting), a young father of two (from different women) who decides that breeding a $1,000 poodle is the way to get enough money to escape a dead-end life on the reservation, and Matho (Ladanian Crazy Thunder), a 12-year-old boy with an abusive father and a burgeoning drug business that consists of stealing his dad’s meth and cutting it with Epson salts.
The two stories don’t really come together except in one small, satisfying scene, and the transitions between them are casual: Bill might be walking down a dusty street when Matho and his friends run by, and cinematographer David Gallego’s camera will simply follow the kids and leave Bill’s story behind for a while.
That gives “War Pony” the feel of a hangout session with these characters rather than a three-act plot, and in a way that makes sense: The film was born when Keough met a pair of indigenous actors, Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, on the South Dakota set of the 2016 film “American Honey.” The three struck up a friendship that grew to include Keough’s producing partner Gammell, and over a period of years they fashioned Sioux Bob and Reddy’s own stories into a screenplay.
It’s not a terribly happy story, to be sure: Bill is unprepared to be a father, doesn’t really get along with either of his sons’ mothers and can’t imagine finding a better situation that doesn’t involve a pipe dream like poodle breeding. Matho, meanwhile, ought to be a kid, but his father is a mess, his mother isn’t around and a life of theft, drinking, drugs and driving around in cars he’s not old enough to drive seems a lot more interesting than school.
The film doesn’t hit you over the head with the social problems of life on the reservation, but it doesn’t downplay them, either; it’s a human story set in a place where humans don’t get the kind of care they deserve, where there’s scarcely a structure or road that’s not in disrepair.
When Matho’s father throws him out of the house and then disappears, and Bill gets a job with a rich white poultry farmer with a habit of sneaking young Lakota women off the reservation for sex, it becomes increasingly clear that neither story is headed in a good direction. But “War Pony” doesn’t try to underline the dangers ahead or rush to get there. For first-time feature directors, Keough and Gammell use admirable restraint in telling their story; life meanders and so does their film, which definitely means it drags at times, but also means that it feels respectful of the community it chronicles.
Virtually every actor is a non-pro, and they make almost every line feel off-the-cuff. As Bill, Whiting barely even raises his voice even when he’s panicking, and he punctuates every conversation with a half grin that suggests he’s charmed his way out of more than a few scrapes. Crazy Thunder, meanwhile, is a ball of pre-pubescent bluster who just might want to actually be a kid once in a while. (His lunch order when he and Bill have their one conversation is a giveaway.)
You can’t say the story has a happy ending, but its energy revs up to a doomy, almost hallucinatory pitch as a Halloween party turns bad for everyone involved. Christopher Stracey and Mato Wayuhi’s music plays a crucial role here, and in the aftermath we also get a bracing visit from “Come and Get Your Love,” the 1974 hit that made Redbone the first Native American band to hit the Top 5 on the Billboard charts.
Keough and Gammell also find just enough grace notes to honor their characters, though that shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s clear that honoring those characters — and the community that helped tell this story — was a major priority for “War Pony” from the start.
A portion of this review first appeared in the cover story in TheWrap’s 2022 Cannes magazine.