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The Rider

This film is probably going to be galloping into my Top 10 list at the end of the year. It came out last year, which is why it got so many nominations at the Spirit Awards; but it’s now finally being released here.

In only her sophomore effort, Chinese filmmaker Chloe Zhao (Song My Brother Taught Me) beautifully captures the true story of some Native Americans in the heart of America.

This is the true story of a bronco rider and horse trainer (Brady Jandreau, playing himself), who’s going through a rough patch. He’s coming off an injury that resulted in doctors putting a metal plate in his head and telling him he could never ride again. The Oglala Lakota teenager, who dropped out of school, is living in a trailer on the Pine Ridge Reservation. His dad, a loving father whose wife has passed away, drinks and gambles too much. In fact, he’s often late on payments for the trailer. Brady’s younger sister is mentally challenged, which also makes you wonder what will happen to her if they lose the trailer. Locally, he’s got a great support group of friends. They’ll pick him up and bring him to a campfire for beers and pot, and to trade stories of their rodeo injuries. When he realizes he needs to start making some money, he gets a job at a grocery store. Since he’s a local celebrity, customers sometimes offer him words of encouragement or want to take a photo with him. At this point, I was reminded me a lot of The Wrestler (working a job you don’t like where you’re recognized, living in a trailer, alcoholism, an injury that could kill…).

Zhao gets some beautiful shots of the reservation’s vistas, and there comes a point where half way into this movie, you’re really experiencing something special. When the film starts, it almost feels a bit awkward, as you can tell these folks aren’t real actors. Yet the opposite thing happens as the story continues. It starts feeling more authentic (something that didn’t work for Clint Eastwood with 15:17 to Paris). Zhao deserves a lot of credit for the performances she got from a cast of non-actors.

There are moments in this that are just so beautiful and painful, all at once. Whether that’s Brady trying to explain something to his autistic sister, or visiting a rodeo star friend of his in a hospital. Brady helps him get on a saddle in the hospital as if he’s riding a horse again. There won’t be a dry eye in the house. A much more subtle moment that got me, was a scene in which Brady has words with his father.

We watch Brady do his horse whisperer magic on an animal its owner couldn’t touch. It warms your heart to know he has this gift, and he’ll at least have a future with the animals he loves, even if it means he’s no longer able to ride bucking broncos.

A few weeks ago, it was Lean on Pete, that took us into the unfamiliar world of low-end horse racing. This movie takes us into the fascinating world of rodeo riding. It’s a lot more dangerous and a lot better, than that Nicholas Sparks movie from a few years ago.

This would be a perfect companion piece to The Wrestler or Buck, the documentary about the real horse whisperer.

This film is like a piece of poetry on a 60 foot high page.

4 stars out of 5.