War Pony Review – IGN

This is an advanced review out of the Cannes Film Festival, where War Pony made its world premiere.

It’s not often you see a coming-of-age story set on a Native American reservation. It’s rarer still to find a Native American story that’s told with such sensitivity as War Pony. It heads to Pine Ridge – the poorest reservation in the United States – to tell the story of Bill and Matho, two young men who are trapped by the circumstances that surround them.

It’s also, controversially, told by a filmmaker who isn’t part of the Native American community, but Riley Keough’s directorial debut is still an impressive one. Alongside collaborator Gina Gammell, she crafts something really special. The twists and turns of reservation life keep both Bill and the young Matho from living up to their potential – but that’s only half the story.

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On the surface, War Pony seems to be a cautionary tale, depicting the young men hustling, dealing drugs, and otherwise sinking into a life of crime. But there’s no judgment here. Instead, War Pony is a story of potential redemption, highlighting just how difficult it is to break out of these patterns. It’s refreshing to see this tale told with a subtlety and sensitivity that goes unmatched. The filmmakers may not be Native American themselves, but War Pony is far from exploitative.

Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) is 23 years old, a two-bit hustler with a cheeky smile. But his heart is sort of in the right place – cooking up elaborate (and often ludicrous) plans to get him and his family back on their feet. His latest grasp at The American Dream is a poodle called Beast. If he can get $1000, he can buy the dog, breeding its puppies to sell for thousands. But when you’re down on your luck, it’s never quite that simple.

Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder), meanwhile, is only 12 years old. Desperately seeking his father’s approval, he’s already following the same path as Bill. And while the two don’t know each other, they have a lot more in common than they would realize.

Both are keen to distance themselves from the Native American ways practiced by those around them, with Bill driving through town blaring hip-hop music from his beat-up old car while others travel around on horseback. But Keough reminds us that it’s not the reservation that’s trapping them in these lives, it’s themselves. And with a touch of Native American storytelling, you’re reminded that their roots might just provide them with a way out.

Jojo Bapteise Whiting is a revelation, portraying Bill as a cheeky, always-smiling hustler you can’t help but love.

Bison are a common motif that runs throughout War Pony, appearing like spirit guides to give both young men the nudge they need to follow the right path. It’s no mere coincidence, either. The bison are an important part of the Oglala Lakota tribe’s emergence story – leading the tribe to water.

Here, they lead our plucky protagonists to a better life… as long as they heed the call. However, we’re also reminded that The American Dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when Bill has a chance encounter with Tim (Sprague Hollander), a wealthy white farmer who offers him a job.

Jojo Bapteise Whiting is a revelation, portraying Bill as a cheeky, always-smiling hustler you can’t help but love. The infinite swagger and plucky optimism he displays are almost child-like, and I guess that’s the point. Equally, LaDainian Crazy Thunder is one to watch. He’s old beyond his years, and Crazy Thunder does an excellent job of walking the line between a boy trying to live up to macho expectations and one who simply wants to be loved.

Equally, Keough and Gammell effortlessly entwine the tales of the two boys together with deft camerawork which reflects the community at large. One scene sees us enter a gas station with Bill, only to leave with Matho… and while this is a technically beautiful shot, it also serves a larger purpose, showing us how the community of Pine Ridge itself is built on mutual help. The hustle-or-be-hustled mentality of Bill and Matho isn’t quite as pervasive as it first seems. Instead, the community prides itself on helping each other along.

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War Pony is all about finding your place in the world, whatever it may be. Not just for the boys, either. Keough and Gammell shine a light on this community at large, opening it up to the rest of the world by creating a tale of striving we can all relate to. It also shines an honest light on the trials of young men growing up in the poorest of conditions. It goes to show that not every crook is a bad guy, and not every criminal is evil. Sometimes, it’s all they can do to get by. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a glimmer of hope as they reach out and grasp for that better life. They might even find it, too.

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