If Larry Clark had ever found his way onto the Pine Ridge Reservation, he probably would have come away with a film like “War Pony,” which observes its young Native American characters hustling, skating and stealing drugs from otherwise distracted adults. Presenting such behavior without judgment, first-time directors Gina Gammell and Riley Keough developed this unvarnished portrait in collaboration with their actors, capturing something at once tragic and true about these kids, who are torn between Oglala Lakota traditions and the consumer culture around them.
A few years older than the hero of Chloé Zhao’s recent “The Rider” — a movie this one can’t help but resemble, at least superficially — Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) is like the slacker version of that American dreamer. He siphons gas from strangers’ tanks and goes around asking people if they want to buy a stolen PlayStation. He already has two kids by two different women. One’s in prison, the other doesn’t answer his calls. When Bill discovers a lost poodle in his yard, he returns it to the owner and discovers what becomes his latest hustle: If he can raise $1,000, the dog will be his; he’ll breed it and sell the puppies for several thousand dollars apiece.
Twelve going on 20, Matho (Ladainian Crazy Thunder) lives with his father, who’s hardly ever home. The boy knows where he hides his stash, cutting the powder with baking soda and selling it to suckers for a quick buck, which they spend on candy and soda at the convenience store. Such behavior won’t seem that different from the schemes working-class audiences remember from growing up in neighborhoods all over America, but it’s not necessarily the way the public thinks of life on the rez — unless you’ve been watching other contemporary indie movies made on the subject, like “The Seventh Fire” and “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” in which case, it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect.
Boys will be boys wherever they grow up, and Gammell and Keough do an admirable job of balancing that universal dimension with details that are unique to Bill’s and Matho’s lives — like the way it feels to attend a Halloween party where a white guy wears face paint and a headdress. One afternoon, tooling around in a hooptie nearly twice as old as he is, Bill passes a shiny new pickup stopped on the side of the road and offers its driver a lift. The man, Tim (Jesse Schmockel), runs a turkey processing facility in Fall River, and Bill sees a chance to earn some serious cash.
The turkey job doesn’t pay much, but Tim takes a liking to the young man and entrusts him with driving Native girls to and from trysts at a nearby hotel. Meanwhile, Tim’s wife Allison (Ashley Shelton) treats the boy with kindness, the sort one can easily imagine turning inappropriate, if given the chance. As practically the only outside (non-reservation) characters in the film, this couple can be supportive one moment and shady the next, representing a lifestyle that Bill and his friends envy, but can’t bring themselves to respect.
“War Pony” spans several months, watching as both Bill and Matho try to take some form of responsibility, despite the many pressures working against them. Every so often, the kids come face to face with a full-grown bison — a vision that connects them to their heritage, and to the land on which they live. In nearly all other respects, they’ve been coopted by the outside world, distancing themselves from the Native traditions that other practice around them. (An early shot says it all, as Bill drives through town, slouched down in his car, blasting hip-hop, while others ride by on horseback.)
As a father, however, he has to man up and provide for his kids, lest they wind up like Matho, who’s dad disappears early in the movie, after kicking the boy out of his house. There are no doubt more inspirational stories to be told on the reservation, but this one feels genuine, lived in. Plus, it looks great: DP David Gallego has experience working with indigenous subjects (on “Embrace of the Serpent” and “Birds of Passage”). He doesn’t seek the same magic-hour vistas that gave “The Rider” its visual poetry, but he’s got a great eye and a real dynamism. His camera is constantly moving, but always with intention, not shaking (for that faux doc “authenticity”) but pushing steadily toward the characters.
Co-leads Bapteise Whiting and Crazy Thunder are solid performers, magnetic in their own right, if not necessarily as compelling as “The Rider’s” Brady Jandreau or Clark’s “Wassup Rockers” muse Jonathan Velasquez. Amid the ups and downs, the two characters’ paths eventually cross, but not as we’d expect. The moment reminds that this film is about sharing, as Gammell and Keough — sharing formative experiences that might have gone far worse for all involved — connect this community to the wider world, and vice versa.