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Equally soaring, intimate, and raw, Chloé Zhao’s The Rider is a work of great beauty and empathy, not to mention a feat of docudrama so accomplished that one would be forgiven for thinking it was all real.

For the most part, it is real. Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) has grown up on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation and rose to prominence in rodeo riding. When a head injury caused by a bucking bronco leaves Brady with neurological damage, everyone – including his developmentally disabled sister and alcoholic, hard living insolvent father – tells him to leave his bull and horse riding days behind. But without riding, Brady feels lost, out of place, and without purpose. Interactions with his close friend Lane Scott – a paralyzed former rider – exemplify the push and pull Brady feels to riding.

Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me) casts real people here to play only slightly fictionalized versions of themselves, but the performances turned in are so naturalistic that one would be forgiven for thinking that The Rider was either a documentary or cast with some of the best actors in recent memory. The primal sense of unease and melancholy that pervades throughout The Rider is well matched by the gorgeous, if admittedly bleak South Dakota landscapes, but it’s not a story that’s devoid of hope or inspiration. It’s little surprise that this took the top prize at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, and it will be even less of a surprise that this one will likely stick with you longer than most films at this year’s festival.

Is The Rider essential viewing?

Unquestionably. It’s flying somewhat under the radar at the moment, but this is assuredly one of the best films from this year’s line up.