Coming-of-age dramas don’t get much more authentic than Gina Gammell and Riley Keough’s War Pony. Born out of the two women’s deeply personal, long-standing relationship with the Oglala Lakota people of the Pine Ridge Reservation, the film follows two young Lakota men as they deal with the ups and downs of their daily lives. In the process, it offers a frank but tender look at the realities of contemporary life at Pine Ridge.
Gammell and Keough collaborated on the concept, script, and filming of War Pony with their friends Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, whom they first met while filming Andrea Arnold‘s American Honey in Pine Ridge in 2015. They cast all of the Lakota characters authentically, almost entirely with first-time actors. The two leads — both of whom deliver excellent performances — are Jojo Bapteise Whiting, who plays genial 23-year-old hustler Bill, and LaDainian Crazy Thunder, who plays enterprising but vulnerable 12-year-old Matho.
Bill and Matho don’t actually share the screen for more than a few moments, but their stories have similar elements, both positive — strong friendships, a supportive community, the joy of pulling off a risky plan — and negative: financial struggles, conflict with family members, others assuming they’re untrustworthy/up to no good. Bill’s constant pressure to come up with more money (to help support his two kids and their moms) leads him to wealthy (and unsettling) White couple Tim (Sprague Hollander) and Allison (Ashley Shelton), while Matho has to deal with his complex feelings about his dad and making his way in the world on his own.
War Pony makes an excellent companion piece to Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli’s Lakota Nation vs. United States. While that film documents the struggles and persistence of the Lakota people as a group, fighting for their ancestral land and against rampant bias and abuse, Gammell and Keough’s story is intensely personal and specific. But that very specificity, grounded in lived experiences and precise details, helps give the film the power it needs to share its message. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Pam Grady: Gina Gammell and actor Riley Keough make an unforgettable tandem directing debut with this evocative drama set on the Pine Ridge, SD, reservation of the Oglala Lakota. The film tracks lives in parallel. In his early 20s, Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) is mired in a kind of protracted adolescence, despite already being the father of two young sons. A striver, actively seeks to better his situation, whether it is in adopting a pregnant stray poodle convinced the puppies will be worth big money or accepting a sketchy job from a wealthy white corporate turkey farmer. While Bill clings to hope for a better tomorrow, optimism has already been extinguished in Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder), a tween growing up in an abusive household amongst a family of drug dealers and who has already started making his own bad choices. The film is a portrait of poverty but also one of resilience, demonstrating how even small gestures can create an impact. The directors elicit indelible performances from their non-professional cast, particularly Whiting, fantastic as a man-child determined to change his fortunes. And if War Pony’s mood is largely downbeat it works its way to an exuberant climax that suggests that even in the bleakest of circumstances there is always room for hope.
Loren King Riley Keough and her co-director Gina Gammell, who’ve made an absolute stunner of a narrative feature debut, spent time in Pine Ridge getting to know the Lakota residents and the harsh elements of their environment. Their immersion shows. With a terrific cast of non-professionals drawn from the community, War Pony renders the lives of the Lakota people mired in sprawling Pine Ridge with grim and incisive detail. Read full review.
Nell Minow: War Pony is so raw, immersive, and intimate that we hold our breath, as though the characters might be disturbed to discover we are watching. The contrast between the characters’ audacity in making every interaction an opportunity for negotiating even the smallest advantage is encouraging for their resilience and entrepreneurship and heartbreaking for the insularity and smallness of their gains and losses. Gina Gammell and Riley Keough have created a safe space for these actors to show us what they have lived and observed.
Nikki Fowler: War Pony is a raw, unfiltered, and applaudable directorial debut by Gina Gammell and Riley Keough on modern-day life and the struggles of the Oglala Lakota youth. With its rose-hued frames, the drama uses real-life local nonprofessional actors as it follows a young boy, Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder), and Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting), who live on Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, and who are dealing with the underbelly of disenfranchisement from alcohol and drugs to broken families, homelessness, and little to no financial resources. War Pony is a gritty and sad dramatization of the oppressed Lakota people that illustrates the hopelessness when a community is destroyed from the inside out by white supremacy and greed. Lack of proper education, racism, harassment, and rampant crime due to the Lakota being pushed off their tribal lands for decades plays out in the lives of these characters that seem tragic, while racism, stereotypes, and discrimination dominate every facet of their attempts at trying to flee their oppression. The underlying thread, however, is their will to live and survive by any means necessary and the uncovering of the compassion within these very endearing characters. War Pony has beautiful visuals and a haunting score and should be on everyone’s watch list.
Leslie Combemale What makes War Pony shine is the purity of its performances, and that extends all the way from leads LaDainian Crazy Thunder and Jojo Bapteise Whiting to even the smallest roles. Co-directors Riley Keough and Gina Gammell really lean into the representation of community and the support indigenous folks have with one another –something that when seen in action here, becomes clearly missing from the rest of the world. Problems aren’t solved, and nothing is tied neatly into a bow for the viewers, which is appreciated, given what we know about the current state of affairs between the US and the indigenous people who were here far before the country existed.
Jennifer Merin For a truly rewarding immersive cinema experience, see Gina Gammell and Riley Keough’s amazing first feature, War Pony, as a double bill with Lakota Nation Vs United States, the documentary featured as AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for July 14. The two films — one a non-fiction feature, the other a feels very real fiction feature — augment each other’s impact like a pair of gloves that give the wearer double punch power. The documentary is a reservoir of shocking facts, the narrative is a tsunami of emotions. These films are perfect examples of movies that matter because they address important social and political issues through beautifully crafted entertaining movies that actually deliver the stories and facts that can actually change hearts and minds. Read full review.
Liz Whittemore Cyclical poverty, ignorance, and violence rear their heads head in War Pony. With this narrative bookend to last week’s MOTW, the documentary Lakota Nation Vs United States, directors Riley Keough and Gina Gammell explore the sad realities of Native American youths who lack resources and the lengths some must go to for survival. The casting of locals brings an authenticity that captivates. Leads LaDainian Crazy Thunder and Jojo Bapteise Whiting are spectacular, portraying trauma from page to screen with the ease of professional actors. War Pony lets the world peek inside daily reservation life with stunning storytelling, never shying away from commentary about modern-day colonization.
Cate Marquis In War Pony, a young Lakota man named Bill and a 12-year-old Lakota named Matho struggle separately with their hard lives on the reservation amid poverty and cultural loss. For Bill, it means an on-going hunt for cash through various schemes, while dealing with the two women who each bore him a son. For Matho, it is hanging with his buddies and chasing little side hustles, like selling some of his dad’s meth stash. War Pony is the feature film debut for directors Gina Gammell and Riley Keough, who is Elvis Presley’s granddaughter. Although neither director is Native American, the film achieves authenticity by casting local Native Americans, shooting on location on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and telling a story based on the experiences of real Lakota individuals. Even though the film leaves us uncertain about the future for either character, it deserves praise for simply offering a too-rare, true-based story of life on the reservation.
Title: War Pony
Directors: Gina Gammell and Riley Keough
Release Date: July 28, 2023
Running Time: 115 minutes
Screenwriters: Franklin Sioux Bob. Bill Reddy, Gina Gammell and Riley Keough
Distribution Company: Momentum Pictures
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Jamie Broadnax, Leslie Combemale, Nikki Fowler, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore
Edited by Jennifer Merin