Before watching Nomadland (2020), the movie, that won Chloé Zhao Oscar for Best Director and went on to get the Best Picture Oscar too, I wanted to get familiar with her other films and was lucky enough, that Mubi (this is not an ad, by the way, but if you are a cinephile, you need to get on Mubi) had Songs My Brothers Taught Me on it. This is her first feature debut and it is as indie as it gets. And in this instance, unfortunately, the “as indie as it gets” is a double-edged sword.
Let’s start with the positives – even from the tiny Oscar snippets (yes, even though I live in the UK, I still get up at 1AM to watch the Oscars live, I am one of those crazy people) I understood that Chloé has an eye for beautiful cinematic shots and that goes for her first feature too. This movie doesn’t look/feel like a feature debut, but it feels more certain, like some sort of seasoned veteran decided to make a low budget movie. Honestly, the way she frames the shots are stunning.
The story couldn’t be simpler, we follow a large family, where the dad, who had 25 (!!) kids with 9 (!!) different wives, suddenly dies and we get to see, how that affects some of his kids. Sometimes, you might get lost when comes to who is who, as most of the cast is made up by non-professional actors. And that is another positive for me – not only that adds authenticity to this story/movie, I wouldn’t have guessed most of them never acted before. That means, either Chloé Zhao stumbled upon quite a lot of people who can (somehow) act, or she is pretty great at directing people (come to think of it, she did win an Oscar for Best Directing for her 3rd feature, so I am guessing the latter is correct).
What I also liked that movie flown quite well, even though it’s one of those indies where seemingly “nothing happens”, as it’s paced differently than your stereotypical Hollywood drama, it never felt boring or too long. The only real issue is, if you are like me and watched quite a few indies in your time, nothing here will surprise you.
The movie doesn’t really have anything “extra” in store, what you see is what you get, it’s that kind of honest movie. Which sometimes, is great and can work beautifully. But Songs My Brothers Taught Me left me ultimately feeling cold at the end. I feel like we’ve focused way too much on Johnny’s character, which I didn’t find that intriguing and I hoped, we would focus more on Jashuan’s character, who definitely was the star of this movie. What I found fascinating about this young actress, was how much she could convey in one simple stare, how many emotions were pouring out of her eyes in just one look. How through her, you fully understand this place, and how either you get out of there and try to make something out of yourself, or get stuck there and you will be there forever, bumping into the same people you grew up with.
It pains me to give pretty average rating to this movie, as it’s masterfully shot and told in a way that makes you understand that the person, who tells you this story, knows what they are talking about. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, it doesn’t give you anything extra, a mere day after watching this film I can’t remember one scene that would stand above the others, everything kind of blends in together. I know movies don’t have to be revolutionary, or have some sort of plot twists to be considered excellent, but I just wish Chloé would have given us something more, that would stick with you.
Overall, Songs My Brothers Taught Me is perfectly fine movie from a somebody, who just made a history (for those of you who don’t know, she’s the first Asian woman ever to be nominated, let alone win the directing Oscar and only second woman ever to win in that category, before this year’s ceremony, it was only Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2008)) and who by all accounts should have hopefully a great career in front of her, as her next movie is this little film, from this studio you might’ve heard of, Marvel – The Eternals (2021) and I can’t wait to see what she will bring to the table there. If you are into indie movies and you don’t mind a really simple story with no real surprises along the way, then this movie might be for you.
That’s all for this one! Did you see it? What did you think about it? Let me know!
Until next time,