War Pony ***
Glasgow Film Festival has been screening a “Surprise Film” since 2007, when it thrust David Lynch’s Inland Empire on an unsuspecting audience. Introducing this year’s offering, co-artistic director Allison Gardner gleefully reminded the sold-out crowd that “we like to challenge our audiences,” before adding that no one on social media had come close to guessing what it was going to be.
As it happened, the absence of a title sequence in the ensuing film meant we had to wait until the end to discover it was a) called War Pony and b) marked the directorial debuts of acclaimed actor Riley Keough and London-born commercials director Gina Gammell. That’s a refreshingly pure way to experience a movie, though, especially when that movie is a Native American coming-of-age story made in collaboration with the community it’s about.
Like Chloé Zhao’s Songs My Brother Taught Me and The Rider, the film is set on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and takes a similarly tender and naturalistic approach to capturing a hardscrabble way of life, albeit with a more anarchic edge. The story takes shape around two young Lakota protagonists, one an enterprising dope-smoking 19-year-old called Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) who already has two kids to support, the other a wayward 12-year-old called Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder), who’s forced to sell drugs after the death of his abusive father. The fact that they’re inherently sweet and funny adds to the tragedy of their respective situations, but the film strives to present them as survivors rather than victims.
A not-entirely-convincing subplot involving Bill’s sketchy involvement with a wealthy turkey farmer in the run-up to Thanksgiving seems awkwardly designed to provide some on-the-nose political commentary, but it also yields an entertainingly madcap ending that provides a small win – however illusory – for characters that deserve a break.
The Glasgow Film Festival runs until 12 March. For tickets and information visit www.glasgowfilm.org/festival