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MOVIES: War Pony - Review

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War Pony is a movie set on the Pine Ridge Reservation in America. It tells the story of two boys in a way that echoes that slice of life tale of Sean Baker but with the rugged edge to it of say; Debra Granik and Leave No Trace or Winter’s Bone. It doesn’t overlook a touch of empathetic understanding to the circumstances of the extreme poverty without the need to romanticise anything: this is harsh, brutal and unforgiving. Directed by Riley Keough and Gina Gammell – complete with their own vision - it’s a memorable coming of age film for both boys going through headspins of their own life.

Bill is 23 – and wants to do something with his life. The chance comes when he sees an older white man in a broken-down car; and a contact gives him a poodle to look after and breed. What follows is a sequence of hilarious naivety that capture how young Bill is and how much of his life he’s still figuring shit out – when he’s asked to attend a crucial Halloween party for his new bosses, he brings his dog and his two kids with him. What follows is a calamity of errors that you must see to believe with the subtlest of Chekov’s Guns being deployed in a blink and you’ll miss it way – the gradual escalation is nothing short of terrifying. The constant guessing game of where War Pony is going to go next keeps you on edge; and it has a way of playing with your emotions perfectly. Bill’s arc is supplemented by a stellar Come and Get Your Love sequence that may be used even better here than Guardians of the Galaxy, a sense of reclamation and pride that the film takes with and runs to the end.

When a film has two stories that are as instrumental to the plot as War Pony yet largely separate it’s often the case that you pick one storyline over the other as a favourite and whilst Bill’s is the showier one, the quieter, self-destructive nature of fate. The two meet briefly – once at the start at the film when they don’t know who the other is.

Matho is spending much time away from his abusive dad as he can; steeling drugs from him to sell to the local populace in one of the more poorly planned schemes of the film that only a 12 year old thinks is a good idea. The entirely naturalistic performance by LaDainian Crazy Thunder gives a sense of vulnerability and confusion as to the weight of expectations of life; a sense of longing that his father will come back for him after he’s kicked out – the reliance of life on his friends and a girl he’s fallen for is natural. When Matho reunites with Bill again it’s like some grand superhero movie reunion – both in entirely different circumstances. Jojo Bapteise Whiting shows how much Bill has grown over the course of the film by the end; his experiences haunting him – a tender, emotional, good-hearted character at heart despite the mistakes he makes give the film its depth.

It's so important to note that War Pony was made with the full involvement of the Lakota Oglala community, and it really adds depth to the storytelling – the authenticity that it needs to work presents a tale of insiders rather than the outside looking in. In fact; the view of the outside is terrifying: the culture of the rich landowners that give the film its antagonists have you guessing and on edge throughout, a real nightmare for Bill to navigate. Humour and hope are at play here in a clash of emotions: never one followed without the other, never one followed without letting go.

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