The origin story of Riley Keough and Gina Gammell’s feature debut, War Pony, coincides with the production of another film, Andrea Arnold’s 2016 Cannes Jury Prize winner American Honey which had Keough star as the brusque head of a magazine sales crew. During the South Dakota shoot, she got to know two of the extras, Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob, both members of the Lakota people and residents in the Pine Ridge Reservation. A relationship started to form over the years, whenever Keough and Gammell would visit and hang around, a friendship that would pave the way for artistic collaboration.
War Pony is split between two protagonists: we have Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting), an uncommitted young father, whose latest hustle involves breeding a poodle in hope of making a fortune out of its pups; and we have 12-year-old Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder), who gets mixed up in his absent father’s meth-selling business. A meandering narrative unites them two only for a brief moment, when they share a frame without actually meeting, and the audience is left to figure out what sort of complementary or contrasting comparisons these two may have. Yes, agency is demanded on behalf of the viewers to fit into a conventional narrative rhythm, but there is a commitment to collectivity which underscores the film’s dawdling. It’s important to note that both main actors share the writing credits with Gammell, testifying to an attempt to amplify their visibility.
That the filmmakers were set on letting Native voices tell their own story, is visible precisely in the humanistic space carved out by unconventionally slow pacing, by the humorous spin on many of the setbacks depicted, and by the general likability of the characters, whatever they engage in. Pine Ridge is known as the poorest reservation in the US and its soaring unemployment rates often translate into depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, and malnutrition. All these instances play a part in War Pony, but never end up being props for a gritty social drama. Shot on 35mm by David Gallego (Embrace of the Serpent), War Pony is gorgeously textured and beautified; the camera keeps insistently returning to grasp the surroundings of ‘The Rez,’ documenting its precarious magic.
When the selection for Un Certain Regard was first announced, the film appeared under the title Beast, which is the name of the aforementioned poodle bought by Bill. Beast (who also won the festival’s Palm Dog award) eventually becomes a pet and a loved part of a family that is barely holding together, while also being a symbol for the displacement in terms of class and race. If anything, the communal ties in War Pony are shown to be stronger than the normatively familial ones and this social message finds its reflection in the way the film deals with economic discrepancies and their racial undertones, especially near the film’s end.
While War Pony should be applauded for its inclusivity, all-non-professional cast, and the lighter tone channeled through the voices and stories of indigenous people, the film cannot dispense with its look of performative vagueness. It feels both messy and well thought-out at the same time, and this may as well be due to the seven-year long production process, the funding difficulties, and the dedication to a communal way of making cinema. However, its building blocks are still promising and its intent, laudably urgent.
This review is from the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. There is no U.S. distribution at this time.