Movies featuring performances by non-professional actors are always fascinating to watch. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in Once. Brooklynn Prince and the kids in The Florida Project. Harry Styles in Dunkirk. The cast of City of God. All of these examples feature those who weren’t familiar with the craft. As a result, they give some of the most natural performances so far this century.
After suffering through this year’s The 15:17 to Paris, starring the three heroes of the terrorist attack as themselves (let’s be fair, they cannot act), a new indie film has finally come out nationwide that features–gasp!–non-professional actors.
Beijing native Chloe Zhao (educated in London and America) met Brady Jandreau in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation while filming her directorial debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me. As a rodeo expert ever since he was a child, he taught her how to ride a horse and help him and his family with cattle. After Jandreau suffered a severe skull fracture from falling off his horse during a rodeo, Zhao knew she wanted to cast him in her second film The Rider, a semi-autobiographical take on Jandreau’s life. With Lean on Pete being the first masterpiece this year to feature horses, this movie truly deserves the praise it keeps receiving ever since its premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, who used to be a massive star in the rodeo circuit. After his freak accident, he learns his riding days might come to an end (“10+ concussions–by NFL standards–I should be dead,” says one of his cowboy friends while sitting around a campfire). Brady has staples in his head after the doctors in the hospital put a metal shield in his skull. He returns to his trailer where he lives with his father Wayne (Tim Jandreau) and 15-year-old sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. One day, Brady slowly goes back to training a new horse named Apollo, who has never been trained before. With the support of his friends and family, he learns how to go through life in the American heartland.
One of the main reasons why The Rider works is the authenticity between its characters and setting, kudos to Zhao’s wonderful direction and screenplay and Joshua James Richards’ gorgeous cinematography. The actors don’t just feel like characters, but real people. Brady Jandreau, in particular, is a tour-de-force. He is a physically broken man searching for his true self. While he eventually wants to go back training horses (in which he has been doing for most of his life), he decides to work at a grocery store to give plenty of time to heal. In one scene, he stands out in the middle of the prairie watching the storm roll in (as seen in the image above). It’s a quiet yet beautiful moment that I will never forget. You might be thinking his performance is inspired by Mickey Rourke’s Oscar-nominated performance in The Wrestler. It’s hard to argue that it isn’t. Zhao did, in fact, show Jandreau The Wrestler in preparation for this movie.
The movie is a special experience, and a beautifully heart-rendering tale about self-discovery. While the year might be far from over, I think I found my personal favorite movie of 2018! The Rider is going to be hard to beat.