That is the subject of “The Rider,” a half-true/half-documentary film set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
The young man is Brady Blackburn (played by Brady Jandreau), who lives in a mobile home with his father, Wayne (Tim Jandreau), and his sister, Lilly (Lilly Jandreau, whose autism is observed but not discussed). All the other characters are played by Lakota Sioux as well.
Brady (actor and character) is a rodeo bronc rider who suffered a serious head injury in a competition. When we meet him, much of his scalp has been shaved, exposing the long incision from a surgery that replaced a piece of his skull with a metal plate. In addition, he has a seizure problem that causes his right fingers sometimes to clench up.
All Brady wants is to go back to rodeo riding. His friends are rodeo riders. The people who know him know him as a rodeo rider. He tells them all that he’s just waiting to heal, but his doctors have told him that he never should ride again.
Brady takes a job working at a grocery store and does not complain, but it’s clear his heart is not in the work.
“I believe God gives each of us a purpose,” he says. “For a cowboy, it’s to ride.”
Movingly, we glimpse Brady’s sensitive core. We see it when his father, broke, sells Gus, the family horse. We see it when Brady visits Lane Scott, a talented cowboy paralyzed in a rodeo accident and still eager to reminisce about the sport. We see it when Brady gently convinces an unbroken horse to take a saddle and a rider.
Brady Jandreau’s performance stands out for its openness and sincerity. For a movie made with amateur actors, “The Rider” feels true.
The film won a directors’ prize at Cannes last year and is only the second by Chinese-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao, who was raised in Beijing and educated in London and American cities.
Zhao has said she was drawn to the American Plains as she had been to the plains of Mongolia in her childhood. This shows in the beautiful vistas of “The Rider,” which suggest why Native Americans today might remain more connected to the land than the rest of us in our built-up environments.
I doubt that a U.S. director could make such a personal film about Native Americans without feeling required to cover the history behind their current circumstances, which generally are pretty bad. This approach may be more respectful of the characters and their story.