After a slow and somewhat frustrating year for movies, it’s refreshing that we can open the Michigan Theater and State Theatre doors again, and just in time to show you some of the top contenders in this year’s Academy Awards race. Among the favorites are MINARI, NOMADLAND, THE FATHER, and BORAT: SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM, all of which play at the theaters this weekend.
Ahead of Monday’s official Oscar nominations, let’s flash back virtually to 2015 for the feature debut of NOMADLAND writer/director Chloé Zhao: SONGS MY BROTHER TAUGHT ME, now playing in our Virtual Movie Palace, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and established Zhao as one of the most natural filmmakers working today. Now, her Best Director win at this year’s Golden Globes—she’s the second woman ever to win this particular honor—makes her an Oscar frontrunner.
With three feature films under her belt, all of which have been released to critical acclaim, SONGS MY BROTHER TAUGHT ME shows Zhao’s first strokes from a broad yet focused pallet that she has developed in her work. With this film, followed by THE RIDER and most recently NOMADLAND, she has established herself as a modern auteur with a distinctive voice and a keen ability to utilize non-actors in primary roles to convey a simple naturalism in the setting and dialogue. She typically finds these people living a simple existence in rural parts of the western United States, making the most of the cards they’ve been dealt, and gives them a loose reign to roam and silently ponder their actions. Watching her work is a specific experience, but also one that is also consistently unpredictable.
SONGS MY BROTHER TAUGHT ME is set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where a young teenager, Johnny Winters, grows restless in his senior year of high school and yearns to move to Los Angeles with his girlfriend after graduation. Meanwhile, his 11-year-old sister Jashaun still finds joy in her community but feels a pain in learning of her brother’s plan, given he is the only positive role model left in her life. When their father, who they hardly knew, dies, it forces them to reckon with how they wish to continue. This plot description is simple and dramatic, but it really is just the beginning for these characters, as the film conveys so much more for us to read between the lines following this moment. While these people contemplate the nature of their grief and discomfort, they weave us through the workings of their small town lives and their relationships in the community.
From the screenplay, Zhao gives minimal push on these characters to make any sort of drastic decision. Instead, she observes them and lets them sit in the dense atmosphere of rural South Dakota, soaking up the dusty skies and fading sunsets. Johnny opens the film with a line in voiceover narration: “If you keep running a horse, you’ll break its spirit”, which feels appropriate to how Zhao must view these people. Where common stories in film develop through actions and reactions, Zhao’s stories are loose and give little pressure on her characters to do anything other than live their lives. It’s this broad structure that makes her work difficult to analyze piece-by-piece, but a pleasure to behold when you take a step back and view it like a painting.
It’s this delicate sensibility for the character’s well-being that douses her stories in empathy and emotion. And it’s this focus on people and their community that continues to be a through-line in her work. Though her stories all exist in small-town life, the purpose of these narratives continue to find that there is no such thing as “simple living”, as there is always complexity to be found in our daily lives.
Chloe Zhao is certainly one of most exciting young directors to watch, but the big question is: will she continue with these themes in her next feature, THE ETERNALS, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe? What will that even look like? Even if you’re not a fan of superhero films, her present catalogue should make any type of cinema fan at least curious for this next massive venture. What a time to be alive.
SONGS MY BROTHER TAUGHT ME is now available to view virtually on our AgileLINK platform (so take advantage of those member benefits!), and NOMADLAND is playing in the Main Auditorium at the Michigan this Saturday at 6:30 PM.
Have a safe and exciting weekend.