War Pony Movie Review| Love, Drugs & Money Life on a Native American Reservation

War Pony hit home. Have you ever lived on a reservation? It was my summer camp one summer, and life hadn’t changed. This film is a tale quite like ‘ Kids’, the 1995 American coming-of-age drama film directed by Larry Clark.  War Pony reminds me of my own summer is South Dakota as a teenager.

War Pony Movie Review

‘WAR PONY follows the interlocking stories of two Lakota boys growing up on Pine Ridge Reservation. At 23, Bill just wants to make something of himself. Whether it’s siphoning gas, delivering goods or breeding Poodles, he is determined to hustle his way to the “American Dream”. Meanwhile, 12-year-old Matho can’t wait to become a man. Desperate for approval from his young father, a series of impulsive decisions turns Matho’s life upside down and he finds himself unequipped to deal with the harsh realities of the adult world. Bound by their shared search for belonging, each of the boys grapple with identity, family, and loss, as they navigate their unique paths to manhood.

This coming-of-age film is long over. The story of passion, understanding and instinct to survive of two teenage boys is beautifully observed in actor-turned-director Riley Keough’s debut feature, co-directed with Gina Gammell. 

The film is set around the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota and is scripted by Gammell with Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob. The fervent and absorbing story is about two young guys from the Oglala Lakota community, one about 12 or 13, the other 19 or 20. They are known to each other, or at least not at the film’s end. But the drama lets us see how much life experience they share and how they could almost be the same boy at different times.

LaDainian Crazy Thunder plays Matho, a young kid with an aggressive, abusive dad. He has a crush on a girl in his maths class and has a sweet and almost romantic reverence for a children’s book he’s found about magic spells. But his relationship with his dad leads to disaster, and he winds up living with a relative who deals in meth, and Matho – already way older and more careworn than his years – starts selling this at school against his auntie’s expressed wishes.

Love, Drugs & Money Life on a Native American Reservation

Meanwhile, Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) is a fantastic young guy we see cruising around town in an old car and taking prison phone calls from the mother of his first son – she is jailed on account of some unexplained bail violation. His second baby mama is utterly indifferent to him, but Bill, with that unreliable cheeky smile that he evidently believes is very charming, assures her that he still loves her. And she is, despite herself, instead taken by Bill’s latest absurd scheme: he has bought a poodle called Beast. Co-caring for Beast will bring them and their son together, he says blithely, and he can sell Beast’s puppies for a lot of money.

Yet a dark shadow settles as things start looking up in their goofy way. Bill gets a job for a white turkey farmer, and his main work will be driving the young Native American women with whom this man is having illicit sex back and forth 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 this. Bill’s friendship with this man and his unhappy wife, supposedly schooling him in the finer things of life, such as wine, is due to turn very sour.

The movie shows us that what Matho and Bill have in common is a particular flair for entrepreneurship and hustling for money to survive. They both have moments where they haggle over prices. These moments come because they are warriors and (of course) would-be thrivers and natural risk-takers. And for all that their background is strict, they are instinctively courageous in their own ways. 

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 senses that there is something bizarrely crass in this supposed compliment, which Bill would never be guilty of. There is a lovely scene when Matho tells his girlfriend about his tattoo and asks for a kiss; referring to the tattoo, the girl replies: “Does it hurt?” and roguishly replies: “I’ll be gentle.”

Bill and Matho have this in common: they yearn to give love and have an untrained aptitude for it – but they are both victims of their circumstances and were never given the tools. Yet there is in their lives something genuinely uplifting and heroic. The film provides us with a look into the lives of the American aborigines that are often forgotten. This is a summer movie for your list. 

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Charlotte Smith

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