War Pony is a deeply honest, funny, and haunting coming-of-age narrative told through the lens of two complicated Oglala Lakota young men.
We’re all a product of the environment we are raised in. We aren’t born either morally good or bad; it’s the decisions we make that define our paths. Whether we like it or not, human beings tend to repeat the mistakes of their parents, ancestors, or simply the people we grow up with. There are many aspects of life that connect us, such as these mistakes, regardless of our background. War Pony shines a light on the communities in Pine Ridge Indian Reservations – who are often not represented in the media – while simultaneously reminding audience members we might have more in common with each other than not.
Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) is a 23-year-old father who navigates life day by day. One moment he will embark on a journey to breed poodles for sale, the next he finds himself working for a sketchy guy who asks him to pick up local girls for him. Meanwhile, 12-year-old Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder) is eager to become a man. Seeking his young father’s approval, Matho makes a series of impulsive decisions, and his life turns upside down as he finds himself unequipped to deal with the harsh realities of adulthood. Both Lakota boys seem determined to hustle their way to the American Dream.
Writers-directors Gina Gammell and Riley Keough (Daisy Jones and the Six) and co-writers Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy craft a carefully put together film that is rooted in the Oglala Lakota experience. The movie’s script doesn’t sugarcoat anything for the viewer. It shows the power of its community and the strong bonds that are formed, as well as how characters use each other for their own gain. By doing this, the set of directors and writers open the door to show that, just because people have different cultures or upbringings, it doesn’t mean we can’t relate to the situations they get into.
Gammell and Keough’s ability to balance tones cannot go unnoticed. Due to the story’s nature, there’s a lot of alcohol and drug abuse, particularly children consuming such substances. It can be triggering for some, but that is exactly the kind of reaction the pair of directors are aiming for. It’s supposed to make you feel uneasy, while at the same time trigger a personal memory you might have had at that age, when you wished you could do things adults do, such as drinking and smoking. And yet, the film navigates through some of these circumstances with a great sense of humor. And the humor works because it feels authentic and in the moment, not because it’s trying to be funny.
Whiting and Thunder are both first-time-actors, and you cannot tell at all until it is pointed out. They are key factors why War Pony’s tones mesh together as well as they do. Gammel and Keough rely on their stars’ natural charm when conveying the movie’s themes. Both Bill and Matho go through such traumatic series of events, and Whiting and Thunder portray their characters’ changes with a lot of heart and care. At times Bill and Matho make very questionable decisions where you often find yourselves begging for them to come to reason, yet their flaws act as a reflection of our own wrongdoings, making it easier to stay connected to them.
War Pony juxtaposes the state of mind of our two protagonists via its technical achievements. Editors Affonso Gonçalves and Eduardo Serrano masterfully parallel the journeys of Bill and Matho in an impressively smooth manner. When one character feels like they’re on top, so does the other. When one is down, you can bet its equal will be at their worst moments too. What makes the editing so impactful is how it gives you a sense of tragedy, and oddly enough joy as well. Through Matho, we get a peek at what Bill’s childhood may have been. Through Bill, we see where Matho might end up if he continues down his current path. Although these two rarely ever interact, their similar arcs – Bill slowly realizing the life he’s been leading might not be what he actually wanted, Matho rushing through his childhood to feel like a real man – strongly resonate thanks to Gonçalves and Serrano’s work.
Paired with David Gallego’s cinematography, sound designer D. Chris Smith and the rest of the sound department are also responsible for the movie’s most memorable moments. A scene that stands out is towards the third act, after a Halloween party where a fight breaks out and you can hear the cries of turkeys and that of two small children. The way this sequence is framed is a thing of nightmares, adding a haunting atmosphere that places you in our characters’ psyche. It’s disorienting, anxiety inducing, and absolutely captivating.
War Pony also sees the collaboration of a lot of first-time filmmakers: actors, writers, directors, even the town of Pine Ridge itself. These incredible creative minds came together, took a massive risk by sharing an untapped culture with the world, trusted themselves to bring it to the screen, and made it all work. What’s so inspiring is that they didn’t make a film that is supposed to make you feel sorry for the Oglala Lakota. They made a movie that portrays these locations and its people with beauty and pride, while also showcasing human flaws.
Films like this expose just how ridiculous the notion of wanting to rely on artificial intelligence to create art that is half as meaningful as War Pony really is. You don’t get a film like War Pony by typing a few keywords onto ChatGPT. The only way you get something so soulful is by allowing human beings to be vulnerable and share their life experiences with the world through their art.
Whether they work together or separately, Gammell, Keough, or co-writers Sioux Bob and Reddy are promising talents behind the camera that have shown to have a sensitive eye for representation. As for Whiting and Thunder, what a way to break through the silver screen. Both are marvelous actors with so much genuine emotion and hunger to leave an impact. Everyone involved in War Pony is somebody to keep an eye on.
War Pony will be released in select US theaters and on demand on July 28, 2023. The film was released in UK & Irish cinemas on June 9. Watch War Pony!