War Pony

In South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, twenty-three year-old Bill is (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) told that one of his two baby mamas has been locked up and her bail is $400, but he is far more interested in spending the money on a purebred poodle he’s returned to its owner that morning, dreaming of breeding high ticket puppies.  Meanwhile, 12 year-old Matho (Ladainian Crazy Thunder) and his two buddies have found his dad’s meth stash and begin selling it, a presumption which will get him thrown out of his home in “War Pony.”

Laura's Review: B

Back when she was starring in “American Honey,” Riley Keough got to know two Pine Ridge Reservation residents, Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob, and over the years the trio developed the screenplay for what would become “War Pony” with Keough’s friend and codirector Gina Gammell.  While the film takes a while to find its groove, its tragicomedic interweaving stories never feel less than authentic, the debuting filmmakers have coached realistic performances from their largely nonprofessional cast and "Embrace of the Serpent" director of photography David Gallego ensures a distinctive look.

No sooner has Bill contacted the owner of the white poodle he finds outside the run down trailer where he lives than the filmmakers sharply contrast Oglala Lakota traditions and modern day realities, Bill driving around in an old beater passing others on horseback before coming face to face with a bison at a crossroads kids on bicycles passing him obviously do not see (Matho will have his own mystical run in with a bison later in the film). As Bill bops around hustling stolen merchandise and hanging up on calls from prison, hewill run into Tim (Sprague Hollander) broken down on the side of the road and turn the man’s plight into his own opportunity, upping the ante when he sees the large spread Tim lives on with his wife Allison (Ashley Shelton).  But while the relationship will result in a job at Tim’s turkey farm and shared bottles of bordeaux, it will also entail driving Tim’s other women in various states of distress back to the reservation, something he’s eventually informed is technically sex trafficking (not to mention a betrayal of his own in service to the white man).

That contrast is also on display when Matho asks his crush for a kiss, complimenting her on her dancing in a Lakota ritual seen ringed by parked cars in the same sorry state as Bill’s.  But while Bill’s arc includes betrayal and heartbreak retaliated against in the most amusing way (the film’s last shot, the view from baby mama Echo’s (Jesse Schmockel) bedroom window, is laugh out loud funny), Matho’s circumstance becomes more and more dire, his treatment at his father’s hands tough to watch, the little girl willing to accept his kiss telling him she’s not interested in someone ‘who isn’t even going to finish high school.’        

One wishes that Bill and Mathos’s third act meeting carried more weight and Bill’s story is the more well developed of the two, but “War Pony,” which won the 2023 Cannes Palme d’Or, gives us an empathetic snapshot of a way of life known to too few.           

Robin's Review: B

Momentum Pictures opens "War Pony" in select theaters and on demand on 7/28/23.