It is more than a bit ironic in a Cannes Film Festival where Baz Luhrman’s biopic Elvis is one of the most anticipated entries, that the subject of it, Elvis Presley turns out to have another direct connection this year’s fest. His granddaughter Riley Keough is making her directorial debut with the Un Certain Regard selection, War Pony having its World Premiere today. The film focuses on two young Native Americans coming of age and trying to get by in a story set on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. It is a location that has intrigued other filmmakers like Chloe Zhao (The Rider) in recent years, and now has caught the attention of Keough and her co-director Gina Gammell in order to tell an authentic and unique contemporary tale of Native American youth brought to life by an impressive group of first-time actors, mostly locals the directors cast in order to give this as fresh and real a feel as possible. They have succeeded.
Hollywood has not always been kind to genuine portrayals of American Indians in movies, often resorting to stereotypes. In fact Keough’s grandfather Elvis even did an unfortunate film, Stay Away Joe, in 1968 near the end of his movie career in which he played what was described as a mixed American Indian named Joe Lightfoot, exactly the kind of casting that would never pass the test today. Fortunately this under-served population is getting more respect, however slowly in films, and the ambitious indie War Pony is a decided leap forward giving opportunity to an indigenous peoples that feels vibrant, and even hopeful as it focuses on a low income area where the residents are striving to have a good life and a future, even with the odds stacked against them. In many ways War Pony is actually closer to Red Rocket than Dances With Wolves in the history of filmmaking takes on Native Americans.
Really this is a tale of two young people in particular, the lively and good natured 23 year old Bill (Jojo Bapteist Whiting), an Oglala Lakota native who has impregnated a couple of “Baby Mamas” along the way, is trying to be a decent dad if not quite succeeding , and coming up with ideas to breed poodles in order to make a living, the idea sparked when he adopts his faithful poodle Beast, a welcome cast member herself. Struggling, and in desperate need of some cash, he also meets Tim (Sprauge Hollander) the owner of a turkey farm who uses him to pick up young Native girls he is bringing in, a sex trafficking scheme by any other name, for his own pleasure. Out of this Bill also gets a job working in the factory on the property while doing dirty work for the boss, even attending a Halloween party in the man’s impressive home, an evening that turns out not so well.
In a parallel story we follow 12 year old Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder) and his friends as he struggles with less than an ideal family situation, essentially left by his father to his own devices which become increasingly dangerous for the young boy.
The structure of the screenplay by Bill Reddy and Frank Sioux Bob, two extras Keough met on the set of the film American Honey in which she co-starred, is based on actual incidents and situations they have lived themselves at Pine Ridge or observed. As they told Keough these stories a creative partnership evolved and the long seven year process of actually getting a script and financing finally came to fruition. War Pony is more character than plot-driven, a series of snapshots in the lives of the people living them, but primarily engaging us in these two young Native Americans before actually finding a way to bring them together.
In a way the film also reminded me style-wise of American Honey, and it seems that as a director Keough and Gammell adopt a bit of the gritty technique of that movie’s director Andrea Arnold. There aren’t an enormous number of female directors getting the spotlight at this year’s Cannes, so it is heartening to not only see this pair in Un Certain Regard with such a worthwhile project, but also Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer, the team who made the compelling God’s Creatures which is a Directors Fortnight entry.
War Pony has a naturalness that is to be admired, and comes from places in the heart a movie willed into being by determined first-timers might only be able to achieve. That certainly applies to the overall casting, not just Whiting and Crazy Thunder, but a terrific ensemble who for the most part are all brand new to the camera. The large cast additionally includes Jesse Schmockel, Wilma Colhoff, Iona Red Bear, Woodrow Lone Elk, Ta-Yamni Long Black Cat, Jeremy Corbin Cottier, Steven Yellow Hawk, Manuel Garcia, Xavier Big Crow, Anjeliq Aurora, Jessica Poor Bear, Calista Rae Cottier, Wasose Garcia, Ezekiel Pourier, Ashley Shelton, Stanley Good Voice Elk, and Sioux Bob himself. They all deserve a shout out for making it feel like they have been doing this a long time when in fact they have not. The same goes for Keough and Gammell.
Protagonist Pictures is handling sales for the film which is looking for distribution.