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  • Reviewed at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

Winner of the Camera d’Or for best first feature at Cannes, War Pony came to the festival trailing some conflicted expectations for any portrayal of Native American experience—not least given the skepticism that comes with seeing a well-known actor’s name as a first-time co-director at a festival that’s had its share of well-intentioned projects. But a few seconds into this assured, fleet-footed debut, co-directed by Gina Gammell and actor Riley Keough (Zola), it was easy to settle into the film’s playful flow through the eventful lives of two Oglala Lakota residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

War Pony trapezes through the days and nights of Bill, a young guy with a lazy charm who’s trying to stay one step ahead of unemployment and romantic entanglements, and Matho, a restless 12-year-old we mostly see hanging out with his crew of friends. Gammell and Keough, co-credited on the screenplay with Pine Ridge locals Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, deftly forge a picaresque style that keeps up with Bill and Matho making the rounds in their community, idling in cars or cluttered dens, bargaining and bantering with women they may have exasperated. This is a film that runs at the speed of palaver, Bill and Matho just rolling along, talking themselves into and out of situations, trading amused glances.

Early on there’s an antic quality as Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) finds a faintly ridiculous poodle and dedicates himself to a plan to breed and sell puppies, reading up on poodle Instagrams. Matho (Ladainan Crazy Thunder) and his pals meanwhile find his dad’s stash of meth and set about unloading it onto an older dealer. All of them could use the money, and at home they face overburdened relatives (Bill keeps pawning off one of his kids on others to take care of) and, in Matho’s case, a rough relationship with his surly dad. But while recognising these realities and constraints, the filmmakers don’t let them define the characters. It’s a strategy that Sioux Bob summed up aptly in an interview I encountered later during the festival: “In a lot of Native films, it’s either the poverty porn or it’s about one topic. It’s about one dilemma, it’s not about everything, and that’s what this film gives you: everything.”

The story enters some intriguingly fraught territory when Bill stops to help a stranded driver, Tim (Sprague Hollander), the white owner of a turkey farm. It’s a deliciously played moment when the tables of need are momentarily turned, and Bill wangles a job at Tim’s ranch estate. That exposes him to their wealthier circles as well as increasing responsibilities, along with a condescension that’s clothed as respect. (There’s an absurd moment when Tim’s tippling wife offers him a dreamcatcher pendant.) For Matho, the charms of his free-roaming independence fade away when his father dies suddenly, and he simply needs a safe place to sleep.

Keough met her co-writers Sioux Bob and Reddy during a lull in shooting her role for Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, in which the two were day players. The rapport carried over into a mindfully collaborative process of writing, casting and storytelling. It’s possible to see something of Arnold’s naturalism and her faith in the brash energy of young performers in War Pony; and however incongruous the comparison might sound, the skatehead mischief of films by Larry Clark and Harmony Korine also come to mind. Much credit must be laid at the foot of Colombian cinematographer David Gallego, whose enchanting images galvanized Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent and Birds of Passage. Here Gallego and his crew match the energies of Bill and Matho with a fluid camera that also sees Pine Ridge through the eyes of the characters. Likewise, editors Affonso Gonçalves (frequent cutter for Todd Haynes and Jim Jarmusch) and Eduardo Serrano find nimble switch-ups in rhythm (launched by an early needle-drop of XXXtentacion’s “Look at Me”).

While superior to the glum, dutiful reheat of neorealism in The Rider, for example, the directors’ approach has its missteps. A recurring vision of a bison feels like a throwback to a sentimentalizing kind of movie about Native Americans, rather than the culturally specific spiritual detail that might have been intended. But War Pony’s formally skilled achievement, aspiring toward the “everything” Sioux Bob describes, is both admirable and vital in the landscape of American indie film.