“The Rider”

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on October 19, 2018 # Mobility

The ReelAbilities Film Festival in New York, now 11 years old, is the granddaddy of American festivals that exclusively showcase film and TV shows that are by and/or about the disabled. The effort has now spread to 20 other cities and finally made its way to Los Angeles just weeks ago. The opening film for the LA premiere, chosen by the festival programmer, screenwriter Michael Dougherty, was not a brand-new film but a film that was initially released in 2017. It didn’t get a mountain of public exposure yet is flat-out one of the best films ever made about disability. There are no inclusion flags being raised here – in fact, the word “disability” never appears in the script. They are simply people with disabilities living out their rich, complicated lives.

“The Rider” is about a 20-year-old kid living on the South Dakota Lakota-Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation who dreams of becoming a champion saddle bronco rider in the rodeo until a horse steps on his head and leaves him brain injured, unable to use his left hand, and confused about his life. He doesn’t think of himself as impaired so much as “resting up” until he’s back on the back of an enraged bronco. His doctor tells him that one more fall from any horse would likely leave him in a vegetative state or worse. Now he has to answer the question that all young men in that land and culture are asked: “Are you a man? What exactly does that mean?”

The lead actor in the movie is not an actor – he is a real rodeo bronc rider, Brady Jandreau, whose own story is roughly being told here. The director, Chloe Zhao, born and raised in Beijing, China, saw that this stoic, tough-as-nails young cowboy could carry a movie and give it a reality like no other.

She then chose Brady’s teen sister with Asperger’s syndrome, Lilly, to play his movie sister, Lilly, and also his best friend, Lane Scott, to play himself as a truly “bad-ass” bull and bronco rider but now both severely brain-injured and physically impaired because of a terrible car accident. I don’t want to tell you the whole movie and you don’t want me to. I haven’t even mentioned Brady’s almost mystical way of communicating with unbroken horses or Lily’s hilarious refusal to wear a bra. Even Brady’s father, a kind of a combo drunk/gambler and tender-hearted screw-up, is played by Brady Jandreau’s real father, Tim. And if you hadn’t learned that all were non-pro actors before watching the movie, you would have never guessed it.

The subtext of the film is the love and generosity paid to everyone with a disability in a culture often vilified as the land of cruel-hearted macho bullies. Ostensibly a story of physical toughness – bronco riding is eight seconds of pure terror – it slowly evolves in one of raw emotional intimacy and caring. Brady, his father, and his sister love, support, and accept each other, and Brady’s deep friendship and rapport with his best bud, Lane, who can’t speak and only crudely sign out letter by letter, informs every beat of the movie.

The subtle complexity of the main characters would have probably been muted or lost if played by professional actors with disabilities, let alone non-disabled actors. A movie as brilliantly made as this circumvents the never-to-be-settled argument about whether or not non-disabled actors should play characters with disabilities. It trumps this quandary with the ideal solution. When possible and in the hands of someone as capable as Chole Zhao, the characters of such a realistic, close-to-the bone tale are best played by themselves.

You can see “The Rider” on Netflix. It says a lot about the disability experience and even more about the real heartland of America. I give it five stars.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.