Beautifully shot documentary/fiction hybrid about a young cowboy named Brady (played by Brady Jandreau) who, after receiving a severe head injury during a rodeo, must decide whether to build a new life for himself or risk it all and continue riding horses.
What's fascinating about The Rider is that Jandreau is playing a fictionalized version of himself – he really did experience such an injury – and that his real father and sister play his father and sister in the film. Ditto his friends, including former rodeo champ Lane Scott, who suffers from severe mental and physical damage after a similar fall. I actually knew none of this going in, and for a good while I just thought writer/producer/director Zhao had cast some remarkable actors. (Brady's sister Lilly Jandreau is afflicted with Asperger's; her lines are mostly improvised.)
The Rider was shot on location in South Dakota; you wouldn't know it, but fair-skinned Brady is, like the rest of the cast, Lakota Sioux. The unique qualities of reservation life – extreme poverty balanced by attentive health care and social services – serve as a backdrop to Brady and his friends' dedication to the cowboy, rather than the Indian, life. It's a romanticized ideal that none can walk away from, despite life-threatening risks, partly because there's nothing else to aspire to in this remote region.
It's a slow-moving film, but the spectacular scenery keeps it afloat, as does Zhao's honest depiction of a little-seen pocket of America. Race and politics are nonexistent here; set aside your biases, whatever they may be, and enjoy the film as a simple, often heartbreaking human drama.