War Pony - a raw & impactful coming of age fable
The title "War Pony" may at first glance seem inappropriate for this movie - after all, there is no war taking place and not a pony in sight (although there was a horse at one point). However, when you think about it, it makes perfect sense.
What this is actually about is two people living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and these characters have very different journeys in theory but share a lot in common. The central character is Bill, a 22 year old who, when we first see him, will do all it takes to make ends meet. Later, we see his rise to power as he becomes far more involved with the bourgeoise of the reservation.
Still, you realise how he is barely holding it all together, juggling this new job with fatherhood for his two kids - each from a different mother who both hate his guts for all his mistakes. This storyline has the feel of a tamer version of Uncut Gems with the constant stress, but also there's a nod to the Coen Brothers' crime comedies with the quirkiness of how he obsesses over selling the litter of a random dog he found on the road as a lucrative money-making opportunity.
The other key character is 12-year-old Maltho, whose narrative progresses in the opposite way than it does for Bill, starting in a place of relative stability as a typical adolescent but quickly spiralling into a life of crime through drug involvement as everything falls apart, increasing his desperation. During this part of the film, there's a constant sense of dread and shock, although thankfully, it holds back from the worst with a somewhat hopeful ending as these two characters finally meet.
The title of War Pony therefore, to me, represents an oxymoron showing the corruption of innocence. This is a harsh coming-of-age narrative exploring the cycle of crime that a community with a lack of funding can bring.
While this film has a universal message, it doesn't lose sight of its cultural context exploring the traditions of Native Americans with numerous visual motifs. The score also utilises the style of music well to a foreboding effect and bizarrely enough, there is a "Come and Get Your Love" needle drop.
The cinematography is sharp in both its intimate close-ups and expansive landscapes of the South Dakota horizons. The naturalistic first performances from Jojo Bapteise Whiting and Ladainian Crazy Thunder as Bill and Matho are also awe-inspiring.
Directors Riley Keough and Gina Gammell won the Camera D'or (best debut feature) at Cannes 2022, and rightfully so - this is a striking film that floors you with different emotions, absurd humour, anxiety and dread while remaining uplifting.
War Pony is screening now.