Vulnerable. Films reviewed: Songs my Brother Taught Me, The Lady in the Van

Posted in Addiction, Cultural Mining, Disabilities, Drama, First Nations, Movies, Old Age, Poverty, Suspicion by CulturalMining.com on February 7, 2016

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

8qzGkl_SongsMyBrothersTaughtMe_02_o3_8934485_1453302729You can tell a lot about a culture by looking at how it treats its most vulnerable members. This week I’m looking at two dramas, one from the US, another from the U.K. There’s a teenaged bootlegger in a pickup truck in a badlands state; and an old lady in a van in Camden in a bad state of mind.

Songs My Brother Taught Me
Dir: Chloe Zhao

Johnny Winters (John Reddy) is a teenager living in a Sioux Nation reserve in the Badlands, Northwestern US. He helps care for his sister Jashaun (Jashaun St John) and their mom (Irene Bedard) who stays in bed all day. NxKlQm_SongsMyBrothersTaughtMe_05_o3_8934624_1453302723She’s depressed. And there’s an older brother in prison.

Johnny’s still in high school, but he plans to cut out as soon as he graduates. He’s saving money so he can buy a pickup truck and drive to LA with his girlfriend. She’s going to University in the fall, and he hopes to make it as a boxer. So he turns to a bootlegging as a source of income. The reserve he lives on is officially dry, but there’s still a black market for beer and alcohol. k5jYyY_SongsMyBrothersTaughtMe_03_o3_8934502_1453302704He meets with an older woman who brings in the bottles and he distributes them for cash. But he faces trouble and potential violence from rivals who think he’s poaching on their territory.

His little sister knows all and sees all. She likes to draw, paint and dance. She begins to follow a tattoo artist to study his crafts and learn about her culture.

Jashawn looks at her brother almost like a father. Then their real father, Carl, dies in a fire, and Jashawn and Johnny realize they don’t know who he was. They get to know their extended family. Carl was a champion bull riderGZX1PQ_SongsMyBrothersTaughtMe_04_o3_8934563_1453302713 who followed the rodeo circuit. They all share Carl’s last name, along with lots of others at the reserve, but Johnny and Jashawn barely knew him. So they are jealous of his “real” family. Will knowing his relatives help him get a job? Or will he move to the big city and leave his mom and sister behind?

Songs my Brother Taught Me is a realistic look at life on a Lakota reserve, and pulls no punches. It’s not a Hollywood feel-good movie. It has a low-key, almost documentary feel to it, and shows a lot of sad and depressing scenes about scraping by with not enough money or jobs. But the realistic acting — especially the appealing performances of John Reddy and Jashawn St. John — help mitigate its downer feel. And the scenery — the dramatic crumbling white cliffs of the badlands — give it a stark and timeless immediacy.

1cf24d8d-9a27-480a-a622-172fc82728a7The Lady in the Van
Dir: Nicholas Hytner

Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) is a writer living on a quaint, middle-class street in Camdentown, north London. His life is a quiet one until an eccentric old woman enters the scene. Miss Sheppard (Maggie Smith) is a nearly homeless woman who lives in a VW van. She’s ornery and smells bad. And she doesn’t mince words: she needs a place to park her home so she can live in peace. And after some deliberation with nosy neighbours, Alan agrees it’s his turn to help Miss Sheppard. So she moves into his driveway takes up residence and lives there for the next THE LADY IN THE VAN15 years.

For Alan Bennett the character, Miss Sheppard is a pain in the ass: a disputatious, mentally ill old lady who gets in the way. She infringes on his private space, interferes with visiting sex partners, and interrupts his writing. And the smell! Plastic bags serve as her toilet. But for Alan Bennett the writer, she’s a fascinating character, dying to be explored and studied.

Turns out Miss Sheppard has a hidden past. The reason she lives in London is to escape a witness to a possible hit-and-run incident decades earlier. Alan also discovers she was once a concert pianist, and later joined a French convent. She’s a bullying, difficult woman with a “derelict nobility”.

THE LADY IN THE VANIronically, the more time he spends trying to learn about Miss Sheppard, the less he spends with the other old woman in his life – his own mother. She is neither glamorous nor mysterious not frightening, and he can’t bring himself to visit her. He’d rather think about the woman in the van in his driveway.

This is a great movie. Maggie Smith is just fantastic, not given to grandiose gestures. She plays it straight as a homeless woman with a strong personality. And Jennings plays Alan Bennett as two characters: the man and the narrator, who appear on the screen together to debate what to do about the woman in the driveway. It’s a theatrical conceit but it works reallyTHE LADY IN THE VAN well. Alan Bennett’s books and memoirs often have internal dialogue that doesn’t work in plays or on the big screen.

He’s a really witty and fun writer and playwright – he writes books like Smut and plays like History Boys – so it’s neat to see him as a character. The Lady in the Van is part memoir (it’s a true story) and part imagined drama. It’s a difficult comedy, one that makes you think and squirm while you laugh. Great movie.

12647247_223040471366833_8306883834731885620_nThe Lady in the Van opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; and Songs my Brother Taught Me is showing next weekend at Toronto’s Next Wave festival. Next Wave shows films by, for and about young adults, including many free screenings. Go to tiff.net for details. Also playing now is the sometimes hilarious parody 50 Shades of Black. If you like the Wayans’ style of comedy, this one’s for you.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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  1. […] Vulnerable. Films reviewed: Songs my Brother Taught Me, The Lady in the Van […]


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