Friday, June 09, 2023

War Pony – depicting poverty and deprivation but passing on the chance to instil any anger (Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 15 June)

Every shot in War Pony is exquisitely framed. The sequences of shots from David Gallego have been cut into scenes that are beautiful to soak in. If the audio was muted, you’d be watching a masterclass in cinematography and film editing.

Similarly, if you closed your eyes, the quality of the sound and foley work is such that you could paint a picture in your head of the small wooden shacks that the Oglala Lakota community live in, complete with the whir of the ceiling fan and noise bleeding in from outside.

Dramaturgically, the twin plotlines of a teenager (Matho, played by LaDainian Crazy Thunder) and a young man (Bill, played by Jojo Bapteise Whiting) could be extruded into a double helix sculpture and displayed in a museum of modern art. The elegant moment near the start when Matho and his gang cycle across the road near Bill, locks the two characters’ journeys together even though they won’t meet again until the film’s conclusion. Matho and Bill could also be thought of as long-lost twins if it wasn’t for the matter of the ten-year age gap. While Matho displays puppy love over a classmate, Bill is actually in love with the money-making potential of poodle puppies.

So far, so good. But a warning klaxon is sounding in the background. A theatre review that starts by praising the set and the lights often turns out to have nothing positive to say about the plot and the acting.

The acting in War Pony isn’t its weakness. We watch a young lad barely into puberty displaying a very believable steely sense of resilience while living under the roof of a drug dealing father who values his growing collection of action figures more than the wellbeing of his child. Later we see how other adults in the community take advantage of this youth’s vulnerability and use him to further their criminal enterprises. And Bill’s wide boy mentality is well-served by the mothers of his two children: one who is let down by his lack of caring; the other (Echo, played brilliantly by Jesse Schmockel) who is desperately trying to fall victim to his enduring cheeky charm.

War Pony seems to be a good example of filmmaking that – at least to this distant reviewer – respects indigenous culture and allows communities to portray their own stories.

Multiple deprivations stack up against the Native American communities living in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. High levels of infant mortality, teen suicide and death by diabetes. Widespread drug and alcohol misuse and dependency. Low levels of employment. A very low average life expectancy. War Pony adds sexual exploitation to that litany of poverty with a plot thread about young girls being trafficked out and in of the reservation to satisfy the sexual desires of a businessman nearby.

If War Pony’s reason for being made is to raise awareness of a part of north America that has been overlooked by storytellers and the federal government, then debut directors Gina Gammell and Riley Keough, along with additional screenwriters Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, have done a good job depicting the poverty and life experiences in a fiction that doubles for documentary.

However, other than a tokenistic smash and grab of a white turkey farmer’s property in an act of revenge, there’s little sense of anger depicted on screen or instilled in the hearts and minds of cinemagoing audiences to accompany the authenticity of the portrayal. The conclusion ends up being remarkably ‘meh’ considering the systemic poverty that should be a national scandal.

It’s a really well-crafted film that bodes well for Gammell and Keough’s future projects as directors. However, much like the bison/buffalo that periodically appears to the two protagonists, War Pony never quite begins to paw the ground with its forefeet, stirring up a cloud of dust, before starting to charge at its aggressor.

War Pony is being screened at the Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 15 June.


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