Real life rodeo star Brady Jandreau in “The Rider.”

Easily one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year, “The Rider” is a unique viewing experience, exposing the viewer to a part of this county that we’ve not seen very often on screen. The story is based somewhat on the real-life experiences of rodeo star Brady Jandreau, who perfectly stars as Brady in the film.

An anti-“Urban Cowboy,” “The Rider” is so real that you may mistake it for a documentary, and yet, the structure is decidedly narrative. We meet Brady after he has had a horrible injury while riding in competition. A broken young man, we see him as he fights to find his way in a new and uncertain world. Brady’s crippling brain damage prohibits him from doing what he loves—riding. And the shots of him on a horse against an open range are nothing short of epic.

Jandreau is really special in this role. Sure, he’s playing a version of himself, and channelling his own personal angst, but he’s also giving us a fully developed acting performance. Part of Brady’s success has to be credited to writer/director Chloé Zhao, who has a real handle on what parts of his struggle to show us. Her script is entirely unpretentious—uncluttered, eschewing the typically clumsy love story or some kind of crime or addiction elements that mar this kind of film.

The focus of this Jandreau/Zhao experiment is closely trained on a love of riding. And you can almost smell the horses as the sumptuous camera work lingers on these beautiful animals while Brady communicates with them. And surrounding the horses and Brady are other non-professional actors drawing upon their personal experiences with the rodeo and horses. It’s an organically paced and structured slice of life, that plays very well.

Expertly lensed and crafted, this collaborative effort between a former American rodeo star and a Beijing-born filmmaker is a perceptive examination of loss. When the film ends, we are hopeful for Brady, but we appreciate that his struggle is on-going and will haunt him forever. Moving on sometimes takes a lifetime.

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