A young Oglala Lakota man and troubled boy struggle to survive on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. War Pony, winner of the 2022 Cannes Film Festival Caméra d’Or for best first feature film, is a desperate journey through the perils of poverty, crime, and exploitation. The lack of opportunities in a gritty environment forces difficult choices. The protagonists attempt to make the best of bad situations by pursuing any direction for forward progress. This unfortunately digs deeper holes from which they try to escape. War Pony evokes visceral reactions. You will be shocked and saddened with a slice of life drama that certainly pulls no punches.
23-year-old Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) smokes weed in his old car while listening to pounding rap music. He returns home to an angry mother (Wilma Colhof). Carly (Angelique Aurora), his ex-girlfriend and mother of his oldest son (Wasose Garcia), is in jail. She wants him to bail her out. The broke Bill only has a used Playstation 4 to sell. He’s surprised to see a dirty poodle sitting in the front yard. Bill takes the dog and walks down the street to find its owner.
On another part of the reservation, 12-year-old Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder) parties at his house with unruly friends. They find a stash of methamphetamine belonging to Elias (Woodrow Lone Elk), his abusive and neglectful father, and hatch a crazy plan. The boys search around for addicts looking for a cheap fix. They switch the drugs with Epsom salt to dupe junkies. This backfires spectacularly when an angry customer chases them down.
Jojo Bapteise Whiting as Bill
Bill decides to buy the poodle when he learns that her puppies will be valuable. A drive looking for prospective future buyers results in a chance meeting. Tim (Sprague Hollander), a wealthy white poultry farmer, has a truck with a flat tire and Lakota mistress (Teresa Shangreaux Colhoff). He offers Bill several hundred dollars to fix the car and take her home. Bill’s discretion in the matter results with another job offer from Tim. Meanwhile, a furious Elias discovers Matho’s theft and attacks the boy. Bill becomes further involved with Tim as Matho looks for a new place to live.
Actress turned director Riley Keough (The Girlfriend Experience, American Honey) and filmmaking partner Gina Gammell (Sweet Lamb of Heaven, Welcome the Stranger) take a cinéma vérité approach to life on the reservation. We follow Bill and Matho like a bird looking over their shoulder. They have immediate needs to address. Bill has two children, an angry ex, and disappointed mother, Echo (Jesse Schmockel), of his second son. She can barely stand to see him after a brief exchange at the reservation gas station. Matho’s predicament is dire. He’s homeless, hungry, and willing to do anything for shelter. This is the perfect storm for those willing to use children for nefarious purposes. Both become trapped in spiraling conflicts that flirt with a dangerous outcome.
Indigenous life is portrayed with frank realism. No one has money. There’s a hard scrabble to scrape up cash by any means necessary. Theft and drug dealing become easy paths to liquidity. Keough and Gammell make it clear that this isn’t a voluntary endeavor. Bill puts all of his energy into the poodle’s well-being. He’s mocked as a fool but sees an actual future as a dog breeder. It’s a canine light in the darkness that Bill loves and embraces. Matho faces worse complications as an abandoned child. It’s heartbreaking to watch as the boy suffers blow after blow. He’s like a tumbleweed blowing in the wind. Scenes of him drinking, doing drugs, and breaking into homes for food are highly disturbing.
LaDainian Crazy Thunder as Matho
War Pony loses its footing in a rushed third act. It’s not fair to generalize, as some salient points are made, but the climax doesn’t really add up to the established exposition. The relationship with Bill and Tim comes to a head in a contrived way. Bill is no flunky or fool. He understands his place in Tim’s world. A paycheck fuels his loyalty. He puts up with racial slights from Tim’s insulting wife (Ashley Shelton) because he needs a revenue stream. His eventual showdown with Tim feels manufactured. The ending smacks unbelievable when everything so far had been credible.
The same criticism goes for Matho’s resolve. Keough and Gammell use Lakota culture as a spiritual guide to the characters. Faith in their heritage and following signs will steer a correct course. This is too abstract for my taste. Matho’s a minor in public school. Any teacher would recognize his distress and bring children’s services into the equation. The practical solution to his problems aren’t cinematic. It doesn’t have to be. The film already engrosses with Matho’s reckless juvenile behavior.
War Pony, at its narrative best, highlights the extraordinary hardships and economic disparity of reservation life. The cycle of hopelessness pervades when there’s nothing to do but scrape by with a meager existence. The Lakota people were robbed of their land, decimated, and subject to a catastrophic re-education. Bill and Matho represent another generation that pays the price for the American dream.
War Pony is a production of Felix Culpa and Caviar. It is currently in limited theatrical release and available on demand from Momentum Pictures.