Actress Riley Keough is making her directorial debut with collaborator Gina Gammell with the moving drama War Pony. Following the everyday and somewhat interconnected lives of two young men on an North Dakota Indian reservation, the film is a brilliant and moving first effort for both women.
In a very slow beginning, we meet Bill, a twenty-three year old living on the Pine Ridge reservation, caring for his two children by two different women. Relying on his grandmother for childcare, he gets it in his mind that if he starts to breed the labradoodle he bought, he would be able to provide for his family.
In another part of the community, middle schooler Matho, is living with his absent and abusive father while galavanting the streets with his friends during the day. After it is discovered Matho sold a bag of his father’s drugs, he is thrown out and goes to live with a local woman, who is also a drug dealer.
Bill on the other hand finds himself working at a turkey factory off of the reservation, getting closer to the white owner and his unhappy wife (a captivating Ashley Shelton-Edwards). Things seem to be going well for Bill despite him ignoring his incarcerated ex. He starts a side hustle for his boss, driving young women from his reservation to various hotels and his boss’s home. Though it is unclear if the boss pays for sex, he does receive it, making Bill’s transportation services akin to sex trafficking. He’s smart enough to know he’s part of the problem but can’t separate himself from his own needs.
First time actor Jojo Bapteise Whiting infuses Bill with enough charm and charisma, you forget in any other story, this guy would be perceived as the dirtbag. LaDainian Crazy Thunder’s Matho is an explosive ball of emotion, giving a performance well established actors can’t always pull off. Gammel and Keough know just how to ramp up tension and how to pull performances out of actors that drive that suspense. There’s no cliche or saviorism to their filmmaking. Everything we see feels natural.
More and more stories are being produced about indigenous life on reservations, especially in the indie space. While one may question why Keough and Gammell are choosing this specific story to tell for their first feature, War Pony fits well into this narrative that some of the most moving and innovative storytelling happening right now are centered on indigenous communities.
War Pony is playing on-demand and in select theaters. Watch the trailer below.