Writer/director Chloe Zhao’s journey into making her first feature, “Songs My Brother Taught Me” too her to places that she couldn’t have seen coming. As she was making the film, she worked with local South Dakotan Brady Jandreau as he taught her about his life as a Lakota cowboy. This group is nothing short of fascinating, combining elements of both American and Native American elements into their lifestyle as they do their best to protect their traditions in an ever-changing world along with the rodeos they participate in to pursue their dreams and keep their families fed. Zhao was so taken by him, his family, and his friends that she wanted to cast him in a film down the road. When he suffered a career-suspending head trauma, she decided to take his story and turn it into her next film, “The Rider”.
The Jandreau family as a whole plays fictionalized versions of themselves as Brady plays Brady Blackburn, whose father, Wayne, is a serial gambler that is losing to his demons. Along with trying to come to grips with his own condition and the desire to get back in the rodeo ring, he also works to keep a roof over their heads and take care of his sister, Lilly, who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome. He has a great support system amongst his friends still working the rodeos as well as his best friend, Lane, who himself is rehabbing from a more serious injury than Brady himself.
Given the blurred lines between life and art here, this almost feels like a documentary without the interviews, and it works. If these had been professional actors, there would have been a level of polish that may have taken me out of the story that Zhao was telling. The genuine chemistry that these folks have with each other simply cannot be duplicated or reenacted. The scene with Brady and his friends around the campfire reminiscing and looking forward at the same time kept me glued to the screen. The raw emotion of Brady’s story shines through to the point where I was even uncomfortable at more than one point fearing for him in the steps he was taking in moments where he was gambling with his own life. There is a risk in filmmaking this way, but Zhao is able to pull the best out of her “cast” in a way that pays dividends.
Working the film festival circuit last year has helped get the word out about “The Rider,” and my hope for it is that it can be seen by as wide of an audience as possible. This is not the type of film that I think can be duplicated, and that increases the specialness of it.