Call it chance, call it destiny - whichever it is, there's something truly magical about a random encounter between like-minded souls inspiring an incredible Cannes-winning debut film. Actor Riley Keough (of Mad Max: Fury Road, Zola and Daisy Jones And The Six fame) was between scenes in South Dakota, on the set of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey in 2015, when she instantly clicked with movie extras turned writers Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob. What followed was a several-year partnership, together with creative partner Gina Gammell, that resulted in the poetic but authentic new film, War Pony.
A beautifully cinematic and tender story about the pains of growing up the hard way – and what can happen to hopes and dreams as a result – War Pony feels profoundly authentic precisely because it is. Drawing from the real experiences of Sioux Bob and Reddy’s lives growing up in the Pine Ridge Reservation, as well as workshops within the community, the creation of this film was a unique, collaborative process.
Further, the stars here are all non-professional, first-time actors, drawn from within the reservation. Newcomers LaDainian Crazy Thunder (as Matho) and Jojo Bapteise Whiting (as Bill) are a revelation as the young Oglala Lakota men – the pair are 10 years apart in age but both roguish charmers in their own way. For the most part, though, they live parallel lives without crossing paths.
For the young Matho, desperate for his absent father’s approval, a series of destructive choices turn his life upside down as he finds himself unequipped to deal with the harsh realities of the adult world.
For Bill, his attempts to make something of himself – whether it’s syphoning gas, breeding poodles or working for a dodgy turkey farmer – create a tear in his family and community as he struggles to carve his way to the “American Dream”. It’s an utterly compelling story about identity and the search for belonging.
Keough says she always wanted to be a filmmaker from an early age. Now, with co-director Gammell, she has fulfilled that dream with aplomb. The film has been cleaning up on the festival circuit – including winning the Camera d’Or at Cannes 2022 for best debut feature. The key to the film’s success, however, has been in allowing the voices of the creators – the writers – to shine through.
Keough and Gammell’s filmmaking is completely on point. Cinematographer David Gallego eschews magic hour clichés, lending the action a real dynamism without sacrificing memorable imagery. It’s lovingly shot without ever diluting the realism.
War Pony carries with it the same spirit of American indie cinema as American Honey and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, with an inherent sense of feeling and place resonating deeply throughout. Feeling fresh, edgy and timely, it is a thoroughly moving and thoughtful experience that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled. It’s a stunning and truly collaborative debut.
By Ed Gibbs