The past decade suggests an encroaching — or, perhaps at this point, arrived — renaissance in Indigenous art. Regardless of the medium, native voices are becoming not only pervasive, but essential to the spectrum of modern American art. Authors like Tommy Orange, Brandon Hobson, and Stephen Graham Jones have arrived to both critical and commercial acclaim; in 2019, Joy Harjo became the first Native American writer to serve as United States Poet Laureate; and, of course, Louise Erdrich, author of one of the more impressive bibliographic runs of the past century, continues to deliver vital work. There seems a clear causality in the literary community’s boom of Indigenous storytelling and the subsequent, relatively more recent suit-following in the visual mediums. Filmmakers like Sterlin Harjo, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, and Sky Hopinka have all delivered fantastic efforts in the past couple years alone, and both more middle-American, mainstream efforts like Rutherford Falls (from Parks and Recreation creator Michael Schur) and the Taika Waititi-produced Reservation Dogs (from creator Harjo) have not only platformed Indigenous narratives, but have mounted their productions with an almost entirely (Dogs) or heavily represented (Falls) crew of native actors, writers, and technical artists. Which is to say, it’s only right that one should meet War Pony, a film about two Oglala Lakota boys growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, with skepticism, directed as it is by two white women: Riley Keough and Gina Gammell. The question of who has the right to tell a story isn’t a new one, but in a country literally built upon the exploitation and displacement of Native populations and in the context of an industry with an unsavory history of Indigenous representation on screen, everyone should feel a bit squeamish at this proposition.
It’s a significant relief, then, that the film proves to be a conscientious and measured affair. The Hollywood Reporter offers a nice primer on the production process: the gist being that Keough befriended co-screenwriters Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy while filming American Honey in South Dakota, and returned regularly over much of the last decade, Gammell in tow, at first as friends sharing in each others’ lives, and then as artistic collaborators. Indeed, much of War Pony’s narrative fodder is influenced by Bob and Reddy’s own experiences growing up, which likely has everything to do with the film’s refusal to trade in the lurid or sensational. Instead, the poverty and substance use and economic hardship that is too often used only to reinforce and conventionalize facile notions of the Native American experience are here treated with a judicious nonchalance; despite the directorial duo, this isn’t a narrative filtered through the white gaze. Where something like Andrea Arnold’s aforementioned American Honey leans into a certain brand of romanticized miserablism — which is about as your-mileage-may-vary as it gets in critical discourse; poverty poor-n for detractors, the height of modern melodrama for adherents — Keough and Gammell’s film instead opts for an unembellished authenticity, its familiar grimy texture suggesting a pulpiness that thrillingly never arrives. In War Pony, a father sharing a blunt with his tween son can be an endearing moment, tragedies can be self-preservationally flattened in the continued, delirious march into one’s future, and a night full of felonies can be both a celebration and a declaration of self.
But, of course, a film doesn’t succeed because of what it’s not, and where War Pony most immediately succeeds is as an unassuming character study. XXXTentacion-listening Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting, in an immensely charming screen debut) is 23, genial, and jobless, and as the film opens, he is looking for $400 to bail his baby mama and ex out of jail. His first plan is to breed poodles; he also tries his luck working for a smarmy white rancher. 12-year-old Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder) spends his days horsing around with friends, getting up to all mess of petty and felonious activity with the casual confidence of the young. Both are trying to learn how to be the men they want to be: Bill by achieving financial stability and providing for his two young sons; Matho by willing himself into the masculine shape he so desires. But the quartet of collaborators here smartly refuse any inane narrative mirroring or contrived entanglements, instead letting these two stories twist and twine together organically: one exceptional and visually articulate sequence tracks Matho and his cohorts through a gas station as they buy candy and snacks with their just-earned drug money, accepting help from a local “auntie” when they try to slip out without paying enough, only for the camera to linger near the counter as Bill enters, inquiring about a potential job. It’s in this lived-in, modest tenor that War Pony’s intelligence and sensitivity can be most felt, taking care to anchor plot threads that could otherwise be spun into high drama to the hardscrabble but grounded realities of these two lives. Even the film’s female characters, who on a superficial glance might seem thinly sketched or overlooked, are instead subsumed into a dialectic on the exploitation of Indigenous women. Nothing is incidental.
It seems, too, that this delicacy extends to War Pony’s collaborative process. Keough and Gammell leveraged their industry cache, and the result, almost miraculously, avoids all whiff of exploitation or exoticization. The pair seem fully content to take a backseat, acting as stewards for voices they value: it’s hard to imagine the moving image of four young boys lying and laughing in a shared bed, a respite from the hardships we’ve seen, coming from anything but experience. The directors supplement Bob and Reddy’s contributions with some sleek photography of the Pine Ridge area, again undercutting any narrative of the reservation’s extreme poverty by instead capturing the land’s considerable beauty — reservation dogs dotting grassy plains as they descend upon a lone house, gorgeous Black Hills vistas of expansive, variegated sky — just another in a sequence of the filmmakers’ surprising but essential decisions. In this way, even within the lineage of recent Indigenous visual media, War Pony is a unique offering: perhaps the closest reference point would be Chloe Zhao’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me (though Keough brings more Hollywood to her project than did Zhao at the time), and while the latter’s work was a likewise respectful and understated endeavor, War Pony is the far richer, more nuanced film. Of course, ideally representation would be left to the hands and voices of the represented, and space will need to continue to be carved from the white cultural hegemony to accommodate such necessary (r)evolution. But what Keough, Gammel, Bob, and Reddy have collaboratively accomplished here is an impressive, expressive film, one that will hopefully open more eyes to and wallets for the remarkable Indigenous art currently making inroads into mainstream moviemaking.
Writer: Luke Gorham
Sons of Ramses
There’s an elusive, ephemeral quality to Clement Cogitore‘s Sons of Ramses, a sorta-thriller that unfolds like a half-remembered dream. It’s only his second feature, following 2015’s The Wakhan Front, but Cogitore is also an accomplished documentarian, video artist, and has even staged a full-scale opera. All of these disciplines inform the odd tenor of this newest project, a portrait of a charlatan psychic traversing the dark underbelly of a neighborhood haunted by the specters of the dispossessed. The psychic is Ramses, played with a hulking, somnambulist quality by the very good Karim Leklou. The film begins with a staged reading, as Ramses purports to reveal the words of the recently deceased to a grieving woman. But it’s all smoke and mirrors, an elaborate ruse that finds Ramses and his associates hacking into people’s phones and scrolling through their photos and social media to find details about their lives. Business is good, until a group of feral kids break into Ramses’ apartment and begin stealing stuff. Ramses assumes that they were sent by his rivals — apparently there are multiple psychics in the area, and they’ve cordoned off sections so that all can thrive. But Ramses ignores their entreaties to respect the old ways, and discovers that the kids are actually immigrants from Tangiers that have been abandoned to the streets. Cogitore spends much of the first half of the film establishing the neighborhood, the Goutte D’or area of Northern Paris. It’s a cloistered, if vibrant milieu, a series of back alleys, apartment high rises, and basements. There’s bustling street activity, but also a huge construction site that cuts through the area. After the street kids find that one of their own has gone missing, they accost Ramses and demand that he use his “powers” to locate their friend. Ramses plays along, fearing for his safety, and then has what can only be described as an actual vision. He finds the missing boy’s body at the construction site, removing it from a pile of rubble and placing it under a tarp.
From here on, Ramses and the boys are tethered together. While the boys risk becoming problematic racial caricatures, Cogitore eventually fleshes out their stories and humanizes them. Ramses, too, is given more depth, as we meet his father, a devout believer in the supernatural. It’s an interesting enough narrative, but what fascinates most is Cogitore’s approach to storytelling — just slightly off, a hint of abstraction that stretches traditional realism into something more fluid and opaque. Ramses’ vision is particularly strange; he is performing his act for a crowd, seems to notice something offscreen in his peripheral vision, and then a cut instantly places him at the construction site. It’s momentarily destabilizing, a fact commented upon by Ramses himself, suggesting the presence of something has actually ruptured the film’s diegesis. Later, a minor supporting character is revealed to actually be a set of twins who share a job and a uniform, essentially performing as each other at all times. This doesn’t add anything literal to the proceedings, but it is another blow to Ramses’ understanding of the world around him. The film isn’t successful as a thriller, although it eventually moves so far away from that particular form that it hardly matters. Instead, it becomes a halting, desperate grasping for profundity in an otherwise mundane, quotidian reality. Grace notes abound in Cogitore’s nighttime reverie. Working with cinematographer Sylvain Verdet, he finds a muted, hazy quality in the images; long, handheld tracking shots in the Dardenne brothers’ style are juxtaposed with quiet moments of introspection, closeups giving way to more expansive views of the area and its denizens. In a way, it reminds one of Leos Carax’s early work, or even Bertrand Bonello, not in terms of an exact influence but in the sense that we are witnessing a fully formed worldview that requires the viewer to tune in to its wavelength. Sons of Ramses feels major, a bold film announcing a vital voice. Let’s hope there’s a distributor willing to take a chance on it.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Boy From Heaven
A spy thriller about a curious subject — the power struggle to replace the Grand Imam of al-Azhar — Tarik Saleh’s Boy from Heaven is set at Al-Azhar University, the second oldest university in the world and the most renowned center for Islamic learning. Adam, the devout, studious son of a fisherman, accepts at the film’s outset a scholarship to the school to further his studies, with no idea of what he’ll be wrapped up in when he gets there. Not long after his arrival, the Grand Imam is dead, and operatives of the state meet to discuss the election of his successor, wishing to control the variables so that an Imam with the same values as the president will be chosen. And so, Boy from Heaven immediately marks itself as interested in the collapse of the space between church and state, the area in which religious morality and government interest collide. It’s a wonderfully intriguing set-up, one that makes for a thriller in which allegations of sin carry as much weight as a bullet, but the stuffy genre clothes the film comes dressed in keep it from being as textually rich as it could have been and, what’s more, Saleh never manages to fashion the conventional proceedings into anything truly gripping.
An undercover State agent befriends Adam on orders to find his own replacement before he is killed. When he meets a brutal end, his handler, Colonel Ibrahim (Fares Fares), approaches Adam to bring him into the fold and asks him to spy on students at dawn prayer, a solution to his father’s health problems dangled like a carrot in front of a horse. From there, he infiltrates a group of radicals and begins a journey deeper and deeper undercover, forced to work for political ends he likely has no interest in, though the character is largely ill-defined, his motivations and beliefs sometimes hard to parse. Though all the pieces for satisfying intrigue are present throughout, the largely linear A-to-B progression of the plot denies the pleasure of a truly labyrinthine espionage movie, and as we watch Adam move into new positions, each seems like a foregone conclusion. It’s not quite predictable, but it is surprisingly simple, and it can be hard to connect with Adam’s own confusion without being totally thrust into the thick of it as well.
Boy from Heaven is at its best when its generic and theological concerns work in harmony, like in one of the film’s most memorable scenes in which Adam must decide whether to betray a friend in order to earn the trust of an enemy during a recitation competition where religious debate over the appropriate methods of reciting the Quran threatens to boil over. But the conventional, unexceptional methods of filmmaking here so under-serve all of the film’s thorniest elements. More often than not, the Boy from Heaven’s setting and the backdrop of religious discourse feel like nothing more than a pretense of quality for this otherwise uninspired thriller.
Writer: Chris Mello
Users of the Letterboxd movie review site may be familiar with a guy named Neil Breen. He’s a fellow with a vague background; some believe he made some money in real estate. But he is infamous for a group of self-made, self-financed action thrillers in which, time and time again, he plays a computer genius with super-human powers who single-handedly saves the world from destruction. Breen’s unique combination of technical incompetence and unbridled hubris has made him a cult figure of sorts, gaining a cadre of fans who ironically appreciate his terrible films.
Money can’t buy talent, of course. But while watching The Mountain, I had to wonder. What would someone like Breen accomplish with a full film crew and the financial backing of a large European nation? Thomas Salvador’s second feature, improbably selected for this year’s Quinzaine, is a vanity project in all respects. 2014’s Vincent, the actor-writer-director’s previous film, was about a man (Salvador) who became a superhero when he came into contact with water. The Mountain, meanwhile, is about Pierre (Salvador), a robotics scientist turned mountain climber who discovers hidden powers atop a glacier in Chamonix Mont Blanc. (Perhaps fire and wind will follow, forming a states-of-matter tetralogy.)
The first three-quarters of The Mountain are not preposterous, merely bland. During a presentation for investors, Pierre is distracted by the snowy mountains outside. He then decides to abandon his old life and stay in Chamonix, purchasing all the gear he needs to scale the glaciers there. This extended introduction is methodical, and it is undeniably well shot. More than a character study, it resembles one of those winter sports documentaries that are a subgenre for climbing and skiing enthusiasts. Granted, The Mountain does feature a meet-cute with Léa (Louise Bourgoin), a chef at a ski resort restaurant, and a brief and awkward visit from Pierre’s mother and brothers who attempt to stage an intervention and bring Pierre back to his normal life.
But overwhelmingly, the first 90 minutes of The Mountain are a close observation of Pierre gearing up, pitching tents, and climbing the face of the glacier. This would appeal to specialized tastes even in the best of circumstances, but Salvador (who has appeared only in his own films) is a virtual black hole of charisma. His impassive gaze and immobile features could charitably be called “recessive,” but considering how Salvador the director places Salvador the actor front and center at all times, charity is quickly in short supply.
This frustration is only compounded in the final thirty minutes, when Pierre’s obsession with the glacier brings him face to face with a set of oozing, igneous creatures who, for reasons unknown, welcome him as one of their own, bestowing upon him a mysterious “gift.” I won’t spoil this ludicrous twist, save to say that if Vincent found Salvador casting himself as a would-be Aquaman, The Mountain concludes with the multi-hyphenate mutating into a bizarre combination of Doctor Manhattan and Mr. Freeze. Maybe you’ll find it funny. I, however, did not.
Writer: Michael Sicinski
Over the course of his three-feature film career, Japanese filmmaker Juichiro Yamasaki has been at pains to elucidate and track the situation and situatedness of contemporary Japanese rural life under the terms of socio-historical relations and economic development. 2011’s The Sound of Light related its protagonist’s struggle between following a path of modern urban living and pastoral life as a dairy farmer; while 2015’s Sanchu Uprising: Voices at Dawn explored in a formally avant-garde, genre-honoring and -defying manner the prescience and lingering relevance of class struggle and peasant revolt for rural Japanese society as related in the film from the Edo period of the 1700s through to the present day. And in Yamabuki, Yamasaki’s IFFR-competing and Cannes 2022-programmed third feature, the director demonstrates that such raw socio-political concerns continue to fiercely persist in his mind.
The film — whose name references a yellow flower native to Japan, Korea, and China, as well as the name of one of its principal actors (Kilala Inori) — may in its structure and plotting remind viewers of a similarly botanically inclined work, Magnolia, encompassing as it does the intersecting and weaving, happenstance-laden narrative threads of struggling, quarry-working Korean migrant worker and former Olympic equestrian Chang-su (Kang Yoon-soo) and his de facto but precariously footed Japanese family; secondary school-attending Yamabuki’s nascent interest in political activism and search for identity, each of which affects and causes friction with her widowed policeman father (Yohta Kawase) and high school love interest; and, at the margins, more besides, in a gang of money-robbing criminals and bar-owning organizers, alongside communities of itinerant workers and social justice organizers activated on issues related to almost any cause of contemporary relevance.
Elucidating the story’s business is useful here in that it makes apparent the sheer amount of concerns and interests Yamasaki brings to the work; which, unlike the 180-minute aforementioned American film, clocks in at just over 90 minutes before credits. While this observation may shape out the dimensions of a criticism that the work is too busy — and it almost certainly is — or that the director has bitten off more than he can chew, it’s the view of this writer that the director’s achievements outweigh such commentary. Yamasaki’s approach, if anything, displays a sense and awareness of the complexity that rural living contains, and that it may indeed be at the forefront of some of, the most stirring and existentially charged elements of modern living; and in this it is likely no mistake that the director has found and imagined this in shooting in his hometown in western Japan.
Beyond such stated success, the film boasts in Kilala Inori an excellent performance that pensively threads through the narrative over-load and -lap, giving expression to the spiritual substance and perhaps even optimism of a work that — in subtly rejecting nationalism and bringing a multiplicity of international experiences present in Japan to the forefront — champions youthful discovering and knowing in the face of seemingly overwhelming propaganda. And it’s for all this that perhaps a more apt Western reference point may well be less Magnolia and more Twin Peaks in how Yamasaki resolves his thoughts on how spirituality inflects his narrative and informs the interactions of grace and despair in his characters, as some are left with loss while others find all they want returning to them beyond reason. All this and more in 90 minutes is quite an achievement, and it speaks to the promise of the director who, much like in Sanchu Uprising’s black-and-white, Jidaigeki genre and New Wave-honoring experimentation, is here no less interested in formal richness, as the final moments of this washed-out, 16mm work give way to time- and medium-bending psychological editing and match cuts that throw into question all that has been and is being seen. Yes, it may be the case that ultimately all of this is decidedly too much — but, much like life itself, things often feel just too much. If nothing else, Yamasaki perfectly captures the nature of this experience here.
Writer: Matt McCracken
Little Nicholas — Happy as Can Be
In an interview with The Independent, famed French cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé stated, “there are terrible things in the world but I am not sure that it is the cartoonist’s job to address them.” Such frankness is appreciated, and makes sense: his career has been filled with everyday depictions of people and places that can be described as cozy and pleasant. Those in the United States may primarily know him for the work he’s done for The New Yorker’s cover illustrations, but in France he’s the artist behind Le Petit Nicolas (Little Nicholas), a comic strip centered around the titular character’s childhood. Over the decades it’s become a graphic novel, a live-action film, and now an animated feature by Benjamin Massoubre & Amandine Fredon. Fredon is the daughter of René Goscinny, the writer and co-creator of Little Nicholas, and one can view Little Nicholas — Happy as Can Be as a tender love letter to her father’s life and work.
Much of Massoubre and Fredon’s film stays faithful to the source material, embodying the looseness, low-key humor, and amiable atmosphere of the comics. The film, however, constantly hovers in noncommittal modes: it largely wants to maintain carefree depictions of boyhood in 1950s France, but it refuses to be just like those original comics. At first, we watch as animated versions of Sempé (voiced by Laurent Lafitte) and Goscinny (Alain Chabat) discuss the creation of Nicholas himself. It all happens in the span of a few minutes: the two talk over red wine, decide on the boy’s name after reading it on the side of a bus, and the rest is history. Initially, it feels like we’re given charming if slight historical context, but we periodically watch as Nicholas talks with Sempé, adding a nostalgic tenor to the film that doubles as a meditation on what art means and does. At the film’s conclusion, we hear that Sempé & Fredon’s life will live on through Nicholas — an obvious point, but made a bit more potent given that Fredon died in 1977.
Musings such as these are sweet but far too explanatory. It makes sense that these things are clarified in direct terms since this is a film targeted at children, but the result is a muddying of the film’s goals. It’s certainly not trying to have the deeper pontifications on creator and creation as found in Jean-François Laguionie’s Le Tableau, but it also isn’t comfortable to simply be a filmic expression of the Little Nicholas comics, like Winnie the Pooh (2011) or Ernest & Celestine. This tug of war makes the film’s varying, sometimes unrelated stories feel more disjointed than they should, as if they should have more of a structure à la Isao Takahata’s My Neighbors the Yamadas. The end result, then, is wistful longing about wistful longing — Little Nicholas was, in some ways, about an idealized life that its creators wished they and others could’ve had (during one sequence, we’re told about the Nazi occupation of Paris and how it impacted Goscinny’s life). The film separates the Little Nicholas parts from those featuring Sempé — there’s splotchy watercolor in the former — but it really wants to communicate the interconnectedness of all this. This contrast between an idealized vision of boyhood with real life only results in a feeling of being constantly interrupted. Little Nicholas — Happy as Can Be’s biggest fault is that it’s never as purely pleasurable as the material it draws from.
Writer: Joshua Minsoo Kim