For her second feature film, writer/director Chloé Zhao (“Songs My Brothers Taught Me”), who grew up in Beijing, attended high school in London and studied political science at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, returns to the Lakota Pine Ridge reservation in North Dakota. Featuring nonprofessional actors in semi-biographical roles, it's a genuine and tender portrayal of the true West.
Zhao's approach to filmmaking is determinedly verité. She hasn't just cast representational actors; she has affectionately developed her script around their stories. It's the antithesis of Hollywood whitewashing.
Lakota cowboy Brady Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, a bronco-buster whose last rodeo ride kicked him in the head. He's the kind of guy who, after checking himself out of the hospital, stoically removes the staples from the gash in his head himself—an act of self-reliance rooted more in geographical isolation and poverty than machismo. Apparently, the rodeo circuit doesn't offer an HMO plan.
“No more rodeos and no more riding,” admonish his doctors, but the stolid Brady, keeping the seizures that contort his hand into a fist a secret, insists he'll compete again, just as he holds out hope for the recovery of his best friend and bull rider Lane Scott. In the film, Lane acts as a cautionary tale, reminding us how much worse Brady's injuries could get if he rides again. Brady's decision not to sell his competition saddle or to train a young rider has high stakes. In real life, a 2013 car crash caused Lane's brain injury.
In this seamless union of fact and fiction—Zhao claims it's a 50/50 blend—it might be tempting to pick through biographical details to downplay the narrative, but to do so would undo the layered magic Zhao, along with cinematographer Joshua James Richards, have conjured. There's a practically wordless sequence in which Brady trains a near-wild horse that makes it impossible to separate Brady the horse trainer turned actor from the Brady on-screen.
Lilly Jandreau, the actor's sister, and Tim Jandreau, his father, play sister and father to the fictionalized Brady. The same goes for the posse of his friends. These are once-in-a-lifetime bespoke roles, and it's doubtful there will be any other supporting roles, as well as they worked in the film. Some might even suppose the same for actor Brady, who, in a rodeo competition in 2016, sustained a life-threatening injury after he was thrown from a horse and trampled, if he weren't such a natural here.