War Pony Review: A Brutally Honest Look At Life On The Rez [Cannes]

Riley Keough and Gina Gammell make a compelling a strong directorial debut with "War Pony," a film that feels like the best Sean Baker movie he didn't direct. This is a brutally honest look at a community seldom portrayed on screen with care or honesty, with a simple story that may not pack much in terms of plot, but packs a whole lot of authenticity and empathy, with a stellar cast of mostly first-time actors.

Frank Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy also make their feature debut with a script that centers on two young Oglala Lakota men living on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) is a 23-year-old struggling to make a life for himself in a place devoid of opportunities, where his best chances at success may be breeding Poodles, working at a poultry farm for a rich white man, or driving underaged girls from the reservation to said white man's house. Still, his soft-spoken boyish charms have clearly got him out of many a trouble so far, so why shouldn't it help him now?

Near Bill's house lives Matho (Ladainian Crazy Thunder) a 12-year-old boy desperate to be treated as a man, no matter the consequences. When he's kicked out of his home after stealing meth from his dad, he sees the worst the rez has to offer, searching for approval and a place to belong while struggling to uphold the image of masculinity he's painted in his mind.

An honest portrayal

"War Pony" is not a pretty or sentimental portrayal of rez life and indigenous communities, but a brutally honest depiction of its hardships. From the violence and the drugs, to the poverty and the total abandonment by the rest of the country. Without drawing so much attention to it to appear preachy, the film fully acknowledges the hardships faced by the 574 federally recognized Native American tribes, and the more than 300 reservations across the country, which never saw the education or healthcare that they were promised in exchange for ceding their land to the federal government. Yet this is also a film that relishes the beauty of the prairie landscapes and hills found on the Pine Ridge Reservation, despite being one of the poorest counties in the U.S.

Indeed, "War Pony" focuses not on the problems of the land, but on the heart of its people, and how everyone knows each other even if they barely see each other. It relishes in small acts of kindness like a woman seeing a group of kids shoplifting and paying for them so they don't get in trouble — or how the community gets together for one hell of a cathartic middle-finger-to-the-man finale.

In many ways, "War Pony" is all about shining a light on a small and underlooked community, and just telling a simple story about the kind of characters you meet there, and the microcosms around the community. There is rather little to speak about in terms of plot, yet its focus on mood and character condenses an incredible amount of story to the point where even if "nothing is happening," the film packs more tension than many thrillers.

A scene where a group of kids stumbles upon a bag full of guns would have easily become the center of the story and a morality tale in the hands of lesser filmmakers, but here, the writers and directors handle it with nuance and don't drag out the subplot. Yet Keough and Gammell do slow down for much of the film, in order to allow for small moments of authenticity and personality, like a quiet sigh or a longing stare.

The best Sean Baker film he didn't direct

Also like a good Sean Baker film, "War Pony" relies on the community it's portraying to properly depict it on screen. The vast majority of the actors are first-timers, which helps give the film an air of realism, from the kids in the skate park to the attendees at a funeral. Yet it is in its two leading men that the film shines, with Whiting stealing every scene he's in with enough charm that not even the baby mama he's been neglecting can stay mad at him for long, and Crazy Thunder giving one of the best child performances of the year so far.

Of course, the question of why these two white women had to direct the movie — even if it was in close collaboration with the tribe — is an important one to ask, and one that isn't so easy to answer. Yet it is clear by seeing "War Pony" that there is a lot of love and care that went into accurately and honestly portraying life in the Pine Ridge Reservation, to show a small scale and intimate story that doesn't hide the ugliness of life on the rez but embraces the good and the bad.

/Film rating: 8 out of 10

"War Pony" premiered as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2022.