The Rider is written and directed by Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brother Taught Me), and stars Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau and Lilly Jandreau. It is placed in the Spotlight section at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
The drama centers on a young cowboy Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) who was once a rising star of the rodeo circuit. After a tragic riding accident, he is warned that his competition days are over. While at home, Brady finds himself wondering what he has to live for when he can no longer do what gives him a sense of purpose: to ride and compete. In an attempt to regain control of his fate, Brady undertakes a search for new identity and tries to redefine his idea of what it means to be a man in the heartland of America.
What makes this film particularly remarkable is the fact that the lead and his family are all playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Brady is a real-life cowboy who did get into a real-life accident. He met writer/director Chloé Zhao when she was in his town in South Dakota doing research for her next film. The two got to know each other and Zhao decided to cast Brady in said film. But it wasn’t until after his head injury that the inspiration for her script began.
And it’s the acting-by-living experience that Brady displays that is a highlight of this film. Brady is not an actor and has admitted to never taken an acting class. However, he possesses a certain magnetism on screen that makes you wonder if he’s lying about the acting class part. His performance is so raw and personal that you understand why Zhao decided to focus on him and his family for this film. It’s a solid performance, even if he has a built-in “cheat code.”
Brady’s interactions with his sister Lilly are also a joy to watch. Lilly has such a fantastic presence and her energy is infectious. Because Lilly has Asperger’s Syndrome, the gentleness and patience that her brother treats her with helps break up the overall somber tone of the film. Even though Brady is emotionally and physically suffering, Lilly is a constant comfort for him.
Brady’s suffering is in spades but Zhao’s writing and directing leans into it. It’s apparent that she researched thoroughly to get the correct tone of voice for this town and this community of cowboys. And, more importantly, she sheds a light on the pressures of losing your purpose from a cowboy’s lens. When explaining to his friends why he wasn’t back to riding immediately, Brady tries to explain that brain/head injuries are different than rib injuries. His friend responds that, he’s a cowboy, as if that’s a sufficient rebuttal. Being a cowboy is the core of Brad and his friend’s purpose. And throughout the film Brady (and Zhao, through her writing and directing) searches for his sense of self without that.
The Rider is art imitating life in one of the best ways. The film benefits from the fact that the main characters are not trained actors, producing a story that is heart-wrenching, unfiltered and intimate. Chloé Zhao delivers something that not only reflects the heartland of America, but the heart of some of its people.