Friday, May 24, 2024

“WAR PONY”

THE STORY – 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.

THE CAST – Jojo Bapteise Whiting, LaDainian Crazy Thunder, Sprague Hollander & Ashley Shelton

THE TEAM – Gina Gammell, Riley Keough (Directors/Writers), Franklin Sioux Bob & Bill Reddy (Writers)

THE RUNNING TIME – 115 Minutes


Plenty of actors have leaped from in front of the camera to the director’s seat, but few transitions might surprise you as much as Riley Keough’s with “War Pony.” One would expect her, the granddaughter of Elvis Presley, to step into a musical project of some sort, similar to “Daisy Jones & The Six,” for which she earned an Emmy nomination for best actress in a limited series. But she and co-director Gina Gammell shed any and all glitz and glamor to capture a moving portrait of life on the Pine Ridge Reservation in their directorial debuts.

Also serving as cowriters with Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, the team opens viewers’ eyes to the many hardships young people face on this reservation. As they tackle two stories dealing with drug use, childhood abandonment, and loss of innocence, the writers treat each situation with great sensitivity, especially because it all comes from real-life experiences. Though it might feel aimless at times, “War Pony” tells a story that is rarely seen or heard on the big screen but one that deserves your full attention.

Life on the Pine Ridge reservation for young people is quite different from what their elders or ancestors could have imagined. Just the opening scene, which shows a young man named Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) driving through his neighborhood with his windows down and music blasting while others pass by on horseback, is enough to show the stark difference. Already Bill has lived a difficult life in the little time he’s been on this planet. He’s fathered two children with two different women, one of which is calling him from jail while the other is entirely indifferent to him, and he scrounges for cash wherever he can. It’s clear to viewers that he wants something better from this life, and it’s why he thinks he lands the jackpot when he buys a poodle and starts thinking of all the money he’ll make off of her puppies.

Meanwhile, Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder), 12, has already started going down a dangerous road. He and his friends find his father’s stash of drugs and later start selling fake drugs to make a quick buck. When his father finds out and kicks him out, Matho has nowhere to go other than a relative who sells meth. He later starts selling drugs in school, against his guardian’s wishes, and begins losing any remaining ounce of childhood innocence he might have had at the beginning of the film. It’s the most disheartening story to watch because of how much potential this young man has to make a better life for himself, and it makes you wonder how many other children are in the same positions.

Most of the “War Pony” cast is composed of non-professional actors, but none of that stands in the way of great performances. Bapteise Whiting and Crazy Thunder feel their characters’ pain and struggles and showcase it all naturally, possibly because it might be all too familiar on the reservation. Even as Bill’s life begins to look up when he begins to work at a white farmer’s factory (Sprague Hollander), it’s met with disappointment soon after when Tim asks Bill to sex-traffic young Native American women. He’s desperate for the extra money and friendly attention he’s receiving from Tim and his wife, Allison (Ashley Shelton). However, the guilt still shows on his face knowing he’s fully complicit in this horrible exploitation.

The two stories feel a bit aimless at times as you’re never entirely sure if they’re leading to some big moment, but they showcase a different side to Native American storytelling that hasn’t been highlighted much in the past. As the writers have shared in previous interviews, potential film backers encouraged them to up the drama for white audience members, as if the hardships these characters face weren’t difficult enough already. Thankfully they held their ground to deliver a sensitively-told real story about current Native American life.

In times when audiences are desperate for real stories and diverse representation in front of and behind the camera, “War Pony” is a must-see film. It’s a great directorial debut from Keough and Gammell, who have quickly shown their gift for spotlighting moving dramas and giving viewers a whole new perspective to take in. It’s an exciting start to hopefully many more collaborations to come.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - A moving drama that opens viewers' eyes to a new kind of Native American tale. Sensitively and carefully handles difficult subject matter. First-time actors Jojo Bapteise Whiting and LaDainian Crazy Thunder deliver on screen.

THE BAD - The script might feel aimless as it goes back and forth between two storylines that don't have much in common.

THE OSCARS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!

Previous article
Next article
Ema Sasic
Ema Sasic
Journalist for The Desert Sun. Film critic and awards season enthusiast. Bosnian immigrant

Related Articles

Stay Connected

98,860FollowersFollow
98,860FollowersFollow
7,305FansLike
7,305FansLike
4,490FollowersFollow
4,490FollowersFollow

Latest Reviews

<b>THE GOOD - </b>A moving drama that opens viewers' eyes to a new kind of Native American tale. Sensitively and carefully handles difficult subject matter. First-time actors Jojo Bapteise Whiting and LaDainian Crazy Thunder deliver on screen.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The script might feel aimless as it goes back and forth between two storylines that don't have much in common.<br><br> <b>THE OSCARS - </b>None <br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"WAR PONY"