Brady Jandreau Tim Jandreau Lilly Jandreau Cat Clifford Lane Scott
This remarkable production written and directed by Chloe Zhao and based on a true story, using the real people for actors, transports us into the world of men where keeping a stiff upper lip and rarely showing weakness or emotion is de rigueur, particularly among the rodeo crowd. I’m in awe of its being directed by a woman—and a Chinese woman at that—who was clearly able to grasp the essence of that culture and give it such authenticity.
Despite our expectations, each of the main characters is drawn in multi-layers, showing the outer image of bravado and surface identity and some degree of scorn, but gradually getting to the underlying bravery, and deep, tender feelings they have about themselves and toward other people. For example, Brady (B. Jandreau), called “stubborn as a mule” by his father, is determined almost to the end to overcome any frailty he has after a rodeo accident, remove bandages, and check himself out of the hospital, and then get right back up on a bucking bronco. Yet, toward his sister Lilly (L. Jandreau) and his friend-hero Lane (Scott), he is optimally patient and thoughtful; and he finally allows himself to grieve for what he has lost, albeit not expressing such deep-seated feelings to anyone else.
Zhao weaves an intricate story around a Lakota Indian family in South Dakota, where rodeo and horses are primary interests. Brady has a promising career as a bucking bronco riding cowboy, aspiring to match the achievements of his friend and idol Lane, who was very seriously injured and is now in a rehabilitation facility. The family is barely surviving, living in a house trailer, and the father has a weakness for alcohol and gambling. In addition to Brady, Tim has a younger daughter with Asperger’s Syndrome. The mother has died. When Brady himself is injured, major adjustments will have to be made by Brady, by his family, and by his friends. This takes time, and the viewer is called upon to be patient and will, hopefully, be fascinated and rewarded by the characters’ gradual evolvement.
To lighten the mood, humor and affection are liberally disbursed throughout. Lilly is entertaining in her spunkiness, slightly oddball comments, and her devotion to Brady. After his accident, she is shown stroking his back and arm while cooing encouragement (a motif that is repeated later when Brady is lovingly training wild horses, using the same techniques to calm them.) The guys josh and tease one another, and there are some scenes where a saddle is put on a “pony” in rehab, so that Brady can help train his friend Lane to use the muscles and movements again that he used to do without thinking.
A pronounced influence in how you will view this film is in the cinematography by Joshua James Richards. The film opens with artistic renderings of horses in a beautiful introduction of the film. And then throughout, striking images capture the mood and action of the story, as when we see a moon trying to appear in the darkness where cowboys are sitting around a fire, the pastels of the western sky, and the stark portrait of a man walking away, a man standing, and a fallen horse after a heartbreaking scene.
This is an art film incorporating the elements of a masterpiece in screenplay and story telling, cinematography, and depiction of age-old human struggles in meeting the challenges of life.
Perhaps the most elegant, empathic story about ordinary men and horses that you will ever see.