War Pony review – gripping tale of love and money on a Native American reservation | Cannes 2022

Riley Keough is an actress who has established herself as a filmmaker with this formidable first feature film, co-directed with Gina Gammell. It is a film set on and around the Pine Ridge Native American Reservation in South Dakota and is scripted by Gammell along with Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob. It’s a really heartfelt and gripping story (with something of The Rider by Chloé Zhao) about two young guys from the Oglala Lakota community, one about 12 or 13, the other about 19 or 20 years. They don’t know each other, or at least not. until the very end of the film. But the drama lets us see how many life experiences they share and how they could almost be the same boy at different times in life.

LaDainian Crazy Thunder plays Matho, a young child with an aggressive and abusive father. He has a crush on a girl in his school math class and has a sweet, almost romantic reverence for a children’s book he found about magic spells. But his relationship with his father leads to disaster and he ends up living with a relative who sells crystal meth, and Matho – already much older and more concerned than his age – starts selling it at school, against the express wishes of of his aunt.

Meanwhile, Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) is a cool young guy who we see driving around town in an old car and taking phone calls in jail from the mother of his first son – she’s jailed due to a violation unexplained of his bail. Meanwhile, his second baby mama is utterly indifferent to him but Bill, with that cheeky unreliable smile he obviously thinks is very charming, assures her that he still loves her. And she is, in spite of herself, rather seduced by Bill’s latest absurd scheme: he bought a poodle named Beast. Co-care for Beast will reunite them with their son, he says cheerfully, and he can sell Beast’s puppies for big bucks.

Yet just when things are starting to look up, in their wacky way, a dark shadow sets in. Bill gets a job for a white turkey rancher and it turns out his main job will be driving the young Native American women this man has illicit back and forth sex with from the reservation. As a Native American, his presence makes this arrangement more discreet; he is complicit in exploitation and Bill is not so stupid that he does not understand it. Bill’s own friendship with this man and his unfortunate wife, who are supposed to educate him in the finer things in life like wine, should turn very sour.

The film shows us that what Matho and Bill have in common is a flair for entrepreneurship and negotiating money. They both have scenes where they haggle over prices. These moments come because they are survivors and (of course) candidates for prosperity, and they are natural risk takers. And for all that their journey is difficult, they are instinctively gallant in their own way. When he hears the words of his new employer: “If there were no women in the world, money would have no meaning!” – you can see how Bill feels there is something oddly rude about this alleged compliment, of which Bill would never be guilty. There’s a nice scene where Matho talks to his girlfriend about his tattoo and asks for a kiss; referring to the tattoo, the girl responds, “Does it hurt?” and he replies mischievously, “I’ll be gentle.”

Bill and Matho have this in common: they yearn to give love and they have an untested aptitude for it – but they are both disappointed. Yet there is something truly uplifting and heroic in their lives.

War Pony is screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

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