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Rider, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Engrossing and authentic."
5 stars

Show someone "The Rider" without any background, and they'll probably come away impressed; it's a fine independent film that tells its story with understated respect for its characters and creates a few striking images. Add that context, and it starts to feel a bit like a documentary. It's not, of course, but filmmaker ChloƩ Zhao is able to find a middle ground between what is real and what is crafted that makes both elements more effective and the film more compelling.

It gives the audience Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), a gifted South Dakota horse trainer in his twenties who is also a star on the local rodeo circuit - at least until he was thrown from a bucking bronco which stepped on his head, leaving him with not just a nasty gash on his head and post-concussion symptoms including dizziness and vomiting, but mini-seizures that leave him unable to unclench a fist. Beyond the questions of his health, this leaves him adrift - all his friends are involved with the rodeo, and raising and training horses has long been the family business. Who is he if he's not a cowboy?

Change the last names, and character Brady Blackburn's story is not far from that of Brady Jandeau; that scar on his head is real and his real-life situation inspired Zhao (who had met him while working on another project) to make this film. His family plays fictionalized version of themselves as well, and knowing this can make a viewer wonder about certain scenes in different ways - is the resentment one sees between father and son created to make the film more dramatic, or not, and what does it mean that they'd be willing to re-enact it and let Zhao record it for posterity? Is that different than giving a documentary filmmaker full access? There are a number of places where a viewer can't help but wonder about the blurred line between fiction and reality here.

For all that one may wonder, it undeniably pays off in terms of authenticity. There's seldom a moment on-screen when the audience might feel that actors have memorized how to do something or constructed a backstory about what led their character to react in such a way, they just do things, from riding to cajoling Brady to get back to riding as quickly as possible. It's not just that details don't strike one as wrong and scenarios don't seem over-constructed; Zhao drops in moments that will delight those who enjoy documentaries and process-oriented presentations, most notably when the audience gets to see Brady training horses, that are interesting for being good demonstrations and for what they show us in terms of how Brady is successful in large part because he is respectful and steady with these animals.

But don't ascribe too much to Zhao "simply" pointing a camera at people in close-to-real situations and letting it roll; this movie wouldn't work if there weren't an actual performance or two to make absolutely sure that they're telling the right story. Some people feel like amateurs when delivering exposition, even beyond how everyone often feels like amateurs in real life, not sure what to emphasize until words are coming out of their mouths, but sometimes you get a bit of delivery that's too well-honed to have happened by accident - consider the firm but innocent way Brady's sister Lilly makes it clear he'd better not ride in the rodeo again; she may be developmentally behind her peers, but she gives Zhao exactly what she needs. And Brady Jandreau's work is strong beyond his familiarity with the situation - he's good enough that Zhao certainly doesn't have to work around scenes where Brady Blackburn breaks down or bares his soul, and you can see him weighing situations or having them gnaw at him. The small-town humility and taciturn manner may come naturally enough, but they seldom make individual scenes work by themselves. We may never find out if Jandreau has range beyond this, but he does genuinely good work here.

Zhao and her team build a nice movie around them, too, from the opening that emphasizes how horses are creatures of immense power, but also highlights Brady's fear that they may be something he can't understand. Her compositions tend to balance the majestic desert in the characters' backyards with the modest trailers they live in, and the moment when Brady actually gets back on a horse is both a glorious moment out of a western with swelling music and one that emphasizes the careful approach and necessary trust in that moment. That's particularly important because she has either made sure to sprinkle injuries throughout the background of the film - beyond Brady's paralyzed friend, there characters in casts and with hooks for hands, with Lilly a constant reminder of what it might be like to have your brain slowed - or smartly used what she found to emphasize the danger of this life.

There's a moment or two that would work for an ending but where the film nevertheless continues, showing that the rehabilitation process is seldom able to get a person to a good place on its own, and while that's momentarily frustrating, it ultimately makes the film stronger and more well-observed. "The Rider" probably could have worked well as a documentary, or with a cast of more experienced actors, but instead Zhao takes the best elements of each approach and makes a rather exceptional film.

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originally posted: 01/12/19 01:38:43
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 New York Film Festival For more in the 2017 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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  13-Apr-2018 (R)
  DVD: 07-Aug-2018


  DVD: 07-Aug-2018

Directed by
  Chloé Zhao

Written by
  Chloé Zhao

  Brady Jandreau
  Tim Jandreau
  Lilly Jandreau
  Cat Clifford
  Terri Dawn Pourier
  Lane Scott

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