The Rider is an arthouse lover’s dream – quiet, authentic, raw, visually captivating with minimal dialogue. It’s the kind of indie that mainstream chicks like me can express a certain appreciation for, while still cautioning the masses that its greatest appeal will surely lie almost exclusively with the arty crowd. The film is a hybrid – part western, part docudrama, part biopic about a young cowboy whose days on the rodeo circuit come to a crashing halt when he suffers a devastating injury.

The film, written and directed by Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brother Taught Me), takes place in the heartland, in South Dakota, where the Chinese filmmaker first encountered rising rodeo star and horse trainer Brady Jandreau. He taught her how to ride a horse. That was before his near-fatal 2016 encounter with a bucking bronco that stomped on his skull, leading to a seizure and coma. And movie.

In The Rider, Brady plays a version of himself (the staples in his head are real), alongside his real-life father, sister, and various friends and townsfolk. The fact-based drama centers around Brady’s search for a new sense of identity and purpose when he can no longer do what cowboys do and get back on the horse. “God gives each of us a purpose. For a cowboy, it’s to ride,” Brady laments, as he struggles to obey doctors’ orders. It’s rare for non-actors playing themselves to actually act well. Jandreau does. The other non-actors around him are more hit-or-miss. Fortunately, Jandreau is enough of a compelling, rugged and vulnerable presence to carry the film, which has become a darling of the festival circuit. His is a powerful story told with a sporadic but effective score and sweeping landscapes that ‘rope’ you in and hold your attention, even as you wonder where exactly The Rider is going to take you.

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