Before she moved into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with The Eternals (2921), Chloe Zhao made subdued, deeply affecting observational dramas about working-class American lives in rural or small-town milieus. Her assured debut Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015) was set on a reservation for indigenous Americans. For her second film The Rider (2017), Zhao returned to the same reservation for a story inspired by actual events.

The Rider is available on a pay-per-view basis on Apple TV+, YouTube Movies and Google Play. Memorably lensed by Zhao’s long-time collaborator Joshua James Richards, the movie has astonishing performances from a non-professional cast.

Brady Jandreau plays a version of himself – the cowboy Brady Blackburn, perched for stardom on the rodeo circuit. When Brady suffers serious injuries in a riding accident, his life loses purpose and meaning itself.

Brady tries to stay as close to the horses he adores, turning himself into a trainer. Against medical advice, and despite a friend who has been committed to a hospital after suffering severe brain injuries in a similar riding mishap, Brady yearns to be a rodeo rider again.

The Rider (2017).

The film is suffused with natural light, beautifully observed portraits of characters in Brady’s rodeo world and intimate scenes with his family. The lyricism feels utterly natural and entirely unforced.

Brady Jandreau’s real-life father Wayne Jandreau and autistic sister Lilly Jandreau appears in scenes that don’t appear to be scripted as much as restaged from actual encounters. Lilly Jandreau is particularly affecting as Brady’s sister. Lane Scott, Brady’s injured friend, too plays himself. The sequences in the hospital are particularly wrenching because of Chloe Zhao’s refusal to resort to cheap sentimentality.

Zhao’s empathy for ordinary Americans who face tough circumstances with as much dignity as they can muster carried forward into her Oscar-winning Nomadland (2020). Nomadland had a known cast – Frances McDormand and David Strathairn – and a bigger budget than Zhao’s previous projects. The road to Nomadland, about a part-time Amazon worker who lives in a van, cuts straight through the reservation where Zhao made her acclaimed debut and then followed it up with one of American independent cinema’s finest works.

The Rider (2017).

Also read in the ‘Start the week with a film’ series:

‘Force Majeure’ is a chilly satire about modern marriage

(The OG) ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’

‘Beanpole’ provides a Russian perspective on the insanity of war