In the southwestern corner of South Dakota is Pine Ridge, one of America’s largest Native American reservations — and one of its most impoverished. Here, the per capita income is less than $8,000 and the poverty rate sits squarely above 50 per cent. It’s a stark and challenging environment, and it’s also where directors Riley Keough (Zola, American Honey) and Gina Gammell have set their gritty coming-of-age film, War Pony.
You may know Keough as the granddaughter of legendary rockstar Elvis Presley, but with this compelling co-directorial debut, it’s clear that Keough is on a mission to carve out her own path in Hollywood. The story here centres around two young Lakota boys: 12-year-old Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder) and 23-year-old Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting), who attempt to survive and find joy in a place that’s essentially devoid of opportunities.
Precocious Matho is obsessed with magic, has a crush on a girl from school and loves skateboarding and video games, while Bill is a flirt who loves hip-hop, smoking weed and finding ways to make a quick buck. They’re typical boys with typical interests, but beneath this veneer of playfulness and normalcy, they’re faced with the systemic issues commonly present on reservations: racism, abuse, drug use, hunger and extreme poverty.
War Pony is at times unflinchingly gritty, reminiscent of other coming-of-age films like Mid90s and Kids that display the resilience of children dealing with issues way above their paygrade – but that's about as far as the similarities go. Instead of always despairing, or trying to be provocative in its display of troubling behaviour, War Pony is brimming with cautious optimism.
There's a feeling that, despite everything, the kids will be alright, thanks to a tightly knit community that's always looking out for its members. And to contrast the darkness, there's ample silliness; Bill becomes fixated on getting into the poodle breeding business, and Matho reckons he can learn how to cast spells. The boys also share their own spiritual visions of bison, a symbol of survival and community to the Lakota people.
Their paths cross only briefly at the start before diverging into standalone narratives, but despite having separate arcs, their stories carry equal weight and paint a picture of the ups and downs of contemporary life on a reservation.
And perhaps most importantly, Keough and Gammell were careful not to centre themselves (as white women) here, instead using the film as an opportunity to amplify the voices of their scriptwriters, Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob — two Lakota men that Keough met near Pine Ridge while filming American Honey in 2016. Every scene is shot in Pine Ridge, and the cast is entirely comprised of first-time actors from that community – and it’s these factors that really give the film a raw authenticity rarely found in film depictions of reservation life.