Culture / Film

‘War Pony’ captures coming-of-age and manhood on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota

war pony

My first encounter of Riley Keough on screen was in Andrea Arnold's 2016 road movie, American Honey. Later we learned of one scene that never made its way into the film. Shot in a motel on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, Keough was working with Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob, two extras and members of the Lakota tribe, and when filming was delayed by six hours, the trio struck up a conversation instead and became friends.

Now, Reddy and Sioux Bob are co-writers on War Pony, the directorial debut from Keough and her close friend and collaborator, British-Australian Gina Gammell. Although the film was written in tandem with Keough and Gammell, the stories invoked are woven from the two men's firsthand experiences living on Pine Ridge.

What is the plot of War Pony?

War Pony follows 12-year-old Matho, played by LaDainian Crazy Thunder, and 23-year-old Bill enacted by Jojo Bapteise Whiting. Where one is on the brink of coming-of-age, moulding his identity from the models of masculinity around him, the latter is negotiating the fallout from his own path to adulthood and trying his best to hustle his way to a better life by selling poodles and, eventually, driving vulnerable young girls for a shady turkey farmer.

The cast comprises mostly of locals and first-time actors, and is set on the lands of the Oglala Lakota people.

Speaking to the BBC, Franklin Sioux Bob noted how this wasn't the first time outsiders expressed interest in filming on Pine Ridge. "A lot of things go through our reservation, just like this scenario, and it's mainly one-sided," he explained. "They came, they saw, they exploited it, they left, and this wasn't the case. People will go, and the difference is Riley and Gina came back, they gave us their word and they consistently came back. These are my two friends, it's not just a work relationship."

By all accounts, War Pony captures the struggles and day-to-day difficulties on Pine Ridge without a voyeuristic gaze. There is no essentialising or playing up of tragedies. Nor is there manufactured lightness. All parties involved, but especially Franklin Sioux Bob, were conscious of avoiding the film turning into "poverty porn". They opted against handheld cameras, instead bringing on Colombian cinematographer David Gallego.

Is there a release date?

Despite winning the Camera D'Or, awarded to a debut film in order to encourage a second, at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, War Pony just launched in UK theatres on June 9 after Picturehouse Entertainment secured the rights to the film in Ireland and the UK. As of yet, there is currently no date set for a US or Australian theatrical release. However, the film has been screened across the country as part of the Travelling Film Festival, which landed at Katherine Cinema 3 back in February this year. More details on where to see the film when they're available.

Is there a trailer?

The trailer for War Pony serves as a rousing entree of what's to come. Preview it for yourself, below.

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