The trait that most films struggle with is authenticity. Even those that feature highly fictionalized plots need to come through with an emotional truthfulness or they run the risk of the audience not buying into the story they’re trying to tell.
The chance of that happening with The Rider is slim to none for a variety of reasons, but especially because it features people in their natural element. The film focuses on Brady Jandreau (Brady Blackburn), a rodeo bronc rider who is recovering from a traumatic head injury. Untethered from his normal life, he struggles to make sense of who he is and what his purpose might be.
Other challenges for Brady include a father, Wayne (Tim Blackburn), who’s emotionally distant at best; a sister, Lilly (Lilly Blackburn), with Asperger’s Syndrome; and friends and fans who seem to only think about when he’ll be able to get back in the saddle again. But as weeks turn to months and he’s still unable to ride, he must decide what to do with the rest of his life.
Written and directed by Chloe Zhao, the film has no distinct plot. Zhao simply follows Brady as he navigates his new reality. Even if you didn’t know it, it becomes clear early on that he and the other people in the film are not trained actors. Instead, they’re playing thinly veiled versions of themselves, and the lives they’re leading in the film are extremely similar to the ones they’ve led in real life.
This sobering dose of reality comes to a head when Brady visits his friend Lane Scott, a former bull rider who’s now in the hospital, paralyzed. The bond they share is heartbreakingly strong, shining through despite their infirmities. It’s dueing these scenes that you understand exactly what type of person Brady is, both real and fictional, and how he will find his way back to the light.
The press notes for the film say that Brady and his family are members of the Lakota Sioux tribe in South Dakota, but Zhao never intentionally focuses on that aspect. Likewise, Lilly having Asperger’s is obvious, but it’s dealt with matter-of-factly. By taking her actors/characters at face value and never defining them by certain traits, Zhao gives them an openness and honesty that’s hard to find.
If you couldn’t already tell, the film is authentic as it gets in the fictional realm. By essentially allowing real people to tell their own stories, Zhao gets to the heart of what makes them tick. They’re not the most polished actors in the world, but they’re better than you might think. And when they hit a story beat just right, it’s as good as anything you’ll ever see.
The Rider will undoubtedly get swallowed up by the behemoth that is Avengers: Infinity War, but its depth of feeling and sense of what makes us human is something that a blockbuster couldn’t hope to touch.