Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider” is a remarkable, deeply moving melding of fact and fiction.
Its main character Brady Blackburn is played by real-life rodeo rider Brady Jandreau, who was thrown from a horse in 2016. His head was grazed by a hoof, fracturing his skull.
Now, the onscreen Brady deals with the aftermath in the movie, a recent San Francisco International Film Festival selection opening Friday at the Embarcadero.
With metal stitches holding his skull together, he is told he can no longer ride, bringing his identity into question.
In one scene, three pals take him for a night of drinking in the desert. They sit around a campfire and swap rodeo stories. This is all, and everything, to these men.
At the same time, Brady’s father Wayne (Tim Jandreau) must sell the family horse to make ends meet, and Brady’s sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), who has an intellectual disability, must be looked after. (Note: Lilly is Brady’s real-life sister and Tim is their real-life father.)
Brady lands a job stacking shelves in a store, which he does with purpose. A young rodeo fan spots him among the brightly-lit aisles and asks for an autograph. Brady encourages the lad, although buried in the deepest regions of his action is an unbearable sadness, regret and perhaps even rage.
In another sequence, Brady reluctantly agrees to help a man break a wild colt. Zhao films a long, loving scene showing Brady’s long-learned skills and deep knowledge of horses; it’s like watching a great musician.
Getting behind the reins allows Brady to begin thinking that maybe — hang what the doctors say — he somehow can work with horses again.
As a counterpoint, “The Rider” features another real-life figure, Lane (Lane Scott), a star rodeo rider who is paralyzed. Brady visits him regularly, helping with his physical therapy — one time setting up a kind of indoor saddle to allow Lane to “ride” — hugging him and calling him “brother.”
These scenes are presented, amazingly, without pity or guilt; the focus is on kindness and empathy.
Zhao has walked a delicate tightrope with grace, particularly considering how many “based on a true story” movies (or “inspired by true events movies” out there that play like fiction — and are fiction.
Sometimes, brave filmmakers try to cast people as themselves, re-creating their stories (Clint Eastwood’s “The 15:17 to Paris”) only to realize that “real people” are not trained and cannot act.
If Zhao were more traditional, she might have showed events leading up to, and including, the accident.
But by focusing on its effects, particularly emotional, she gets a simmering and truly touching, performance from Brady Jandreau, who, like everyone, has days of galloping and of standing still, and has to weather them all.
Three and a half stars
Starring Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Lane Scott
Written and directed by Chloé Zhao
Running time 1 hour, 43 minutes