Zhao has created a charismatic star and a brilliant – must see twice – view of a powerful segment of American life.
Writer-director Chloe Zhao has taken an outsider’s view into the world of rodeo horse riding in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. This highly dangerous sport is best engaged in by young men seduced by the 8 second adrenaline rush, regardless of the potential for physical harm.
Most participants are addicted to the danger.
Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), has survived a severe head injury in a rodeo horse riding event. His scalp is stapled and the wound covers half of his head. Brady’s life is centered around horses and the rodeo. All his friends are riders. He lives with his Asperger syndrome afflicted 15-year old sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) and his father (Tim Jandreau). Brady’s mother has died and his mentor and best friend Lane (Lane Scott), who once was a promising rodeo rider, suffered a devastating fall resulting in his being paralyzed and unable to speak. He is confined to living in a care facility.
Lilly is Brady Jandreau’s real-life sister and Tim Jandreau is his real-life father. Jandreau’s friends are his real-life friends. And this is astonishing, because Zhao’s skill at directing belies their lack of training.
Many of today’s rodeo stock providers have developed sophisticated breeding programs to allow them to breed horses specifically to buck.
Having a horse bred to “specifically buck” is what makes the rodeo such an exciting and thrilling spectator sport. And it is exactly “bucking” where serious injuries occur.
Brady visits Lane often and even though Lane represents the real dangers of rodeo riding, Brady continued riding. And now he is told he cannot ride any longer. In the world Brady lives in, sympathy is not a widespread virtue. He is expected to get a job. He gets a humiliating job at a supermarket, where people come up to him as if he was still a local rodeo star.
When a friend asks Brady to “break” his wild horses, we really see that this naturalistic newly-minted actor is really a highly skilled horse trainer.
Brady works easily with the horses but one, Apollo, is his most challenging. Without director Zhao’s interference, Brady works with the horse, finally getting on him, then riding him and teaching Apollo what the reins mean. They form a bond, but Brady’s father warns him not to ride Apollo. But Apollo is a beautiful animal.
The rodeo continues to hold the core meaning of life to Brady and his friends. When he visits Lane, he plays Lane’s rodeo videos and makes a pair of reins out of rope, so Lane can pretend to ride once again. These scenes are utterly charming.
Bareback bronc riding is a rough and explosive rodeo event. The most physically demanding of all the rodeo events, it is also the first event to compete in most rodeos. Cowboys ride rough horses without the benefit of saddle or rein, trying to stay on the horse while the horse attempts to buck off the rider.
Zhao met Jandreau, a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, in 2015 on the Pine Ridge Reservation. She knew immediately that Jandreau had a compelling story to tell but more importantly, she knew she could make a brilliant film and create a star. Jandreau is so expressive and the way Zhao directs and has him photographed, she has crafted a character similar to James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.
There is no love interest in Brady’s story. And that is because Zhao fell in “cinematic love” with him. You can see it in every one of Brady’s scenes. You can tell Zhao adored him. He never looks bad – even with half his head shaved and a very bad haircut. Every actor and actress need a director that invests this kind of commitment to them. When an actor or actress does not have a director that likes them, it shows.
I often see it and it is not something that I can easily define. Let’s just say – as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said: “I know it when I see it.” *
Zhao focuses many scenes on Brady’s face. He must have trusted her completely, since so much of his story reveals an emotional weight he is really carrying.
You will not believe any of the people in this movie are not professional actors and actresses. If Brady Jandreau must really never ride a horse again, he has a very big future in films – as long as he finds a director that falls in love with him.
*Used by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stewart to describe his threshold test for obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio.