Writer/Director Chloé Zhao
A quietly powerful examination of a young rodeo cowboy who suffers a traumatic head injury which threatens his career, and the struggles he faces to hold onto his dreams. Written and directed beautifully by Ms. Zhao, who lets her actors’ reactions communicate more than the sparse dialog can and captures the emotions in their faces and through the South Dakota landscapes where they live. Spiritual, poetic, delicate, profound and so authentic, this is a striking artistic achievement and one of my favorite films this year – a Must See.
The story is fiction grounded in truth. Lead actor Brady Jandreau (Brady Blackburn) was a rodeo rider who suffered the head injury depicted in the film, and personally had to deal with the loss of an identity based in his rodeo life. Zhao had met him before his injury and was trying to develop a film around him. Once the injury happened, she felt she had the story she was looking for, wrote the script and shot the film around 5-6 months after Mr. Jandreau’s injury.
Jandreau’s real life father and sister play the character’s father and sister, and the rest of the cast are also not actors playing their parts, including bull rider Lane Scott who was severely injured in a 2014 car accident. That Zhao was able to evoke and capture such great performances from non actors, and not have this film feel like a documentary is remarkable. Brady’s performance is essential to the film’s tone and success, and he is wonderful. (I kept thinking he looks so much like Joseph Gordon Levitt, who’s work I really like.)
No less a character than the people is the majestic landscape around the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The dawn sky, rolling fields of grass, rugged canyons and distant peaks all speak into the film’s tone and the main character’s emotional state. It’s a beautifully shot film by cinematographer Joshua James Richards, part of a ridiculously small crew for the wonders they achieve.
What stays with me most is the authenticity of Brady’s personal struggle to see himself as valuable in spite of his identity being so wrapped up in a singular purpose. Zhao doesn’t sugarcoat the experience, nor sentimentalize the people and community in which Brady navigates. Even though sometimes watching the process felt like getting gut punched, there is a sense of hope that Brady can succeed at redefining himself and what happiness is. That’s something I want to hold onto.