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Young man with brown hair looking sideways and a big brown horse leaning its head toward his lap

Brady Jandreau plays a sidelined horseman in a movie inspired by his life, The Rider. (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

The physical toll that football takes on athletes has been a source of controversy in recent years. A new and offbeat movie looks at the toll paid by an athlete who practices an even more dangerous sport: rodeo.

The Rider has garnered attention not only because of its absorbing tale but because the cast consists of people who experienced nearly identical events in the real world. Rather than relying on professional actors, writer-director Chloe Zhao tells her fictionalized version of Brady Jandreau’s life with the help of Jandreau and his friends and family.

Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, a Native American horse trainer and bronco rider who suffered a nearly fatal head injury after falling under a horse’s hooves. We meet him as he’s attempting to get his life back—to the extent that’s possible. Providing a mixture of encouragement and insults is his alcoholic father, Wayne (Tim Jandreau), while more consistent moral support is offered by his intellectually challenged sister, Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), and a host of friends.

Brady’s story is bleak but mixed with touches of beauty, much like the South Dakota scenery against which it’s set. Because his whole life has revolved around horses, he’s determined to get back in the saddle even though his doctor warns that another fall could be disastrous. Brady temporarily takes a job as a clerk in the local market, but the call of his former life is so strong that it seems only a matter of time before he decides to risk it all.

Meanwhile, Brady pays frequent visits to his friend Lane Scott (playing himself), who was injured so severely in a rodeo accident that he’s been left paralyzed and incapable of speech. The eternal pull of the rodeo is spelled out when Brady helps Lane straddle a makeshift “bronco” so he can re-experience the thrill of riding an untamed beast.

Director Zhao occasionally spells things out a little too much. One result of Brady’s injuries is a clenched hand that refuses to let go of things such as a bridle—or, in one blatantly symbolic scene, a horse-shaped figurine.

Mostly, though, Zhao exhibits the kind of restraint that’s needed to pull convincing performances out of untrained actors. Jandreau is especially effective, largely because Zhao relies more on his expressive face than on his voice to convey Brady’s inner turmoil.

The Rider shines as a unique tale told in a unique fashion. Long before its conclusion, you’ll come to know and care about both its heartbroken hero and the man who portrays him.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
The Rider (rated R) opened June 1 at the Drexel Theatre. Gateway Film Center and AMC Lennox Town Center 24.

Star-spangled tribute to a landmark hotel

George Clooney understatedly calls the Carlyle a place to “lay your head.” Meanwhile, fellow actor Jon Hamm says he can’t imagine staying at New York’s iconic hotel because you could put someone through college for what you’d pay for a single night.

Unfortunately, Hamm is a sardonic outlier in Always at the Carlyle, a documentary that mostly comes off as a fawning infomercial. For those who don’t happen to be rich and famous, its biggest thrill is the same one that presumably comes with staying at the hotel: the chance to encounter the rich and famous. Besides Clooney, featured Carlyle guests include Naomi Campbell, Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson, Jeff Goldblum, Anjelica Huston, Harrison Ford and Condoleezza Rice.

Rice, by the way, counters the notion that the Carlyle is overpriced by saying it delivers the promised value. Besides sumptuously furnished rooms, that includes an almost fanatical devotion to detail and personalized service. The latter is symbolized by an on-site seamstress who monograms pillowcases with each guest’s initials. Fabulous!

Director Matthew Miele occasionally allows interesting anecdotes to interrupt the stream of compliments. In one of the best, a retired Carlyle bartender recalls the day President Truman saved his job by pretending he’d asked the new employee to call him “Harry” rather than “Mr. President.”

Otherwise, the tedious doc redeems itself only near the end, when it turns its attention to the hotel’s famed lounge and the incomparable singer/pianist who long served as its “king”: Bobby Short. Music lovers may find it’s worth wading through the film’s shameless PR for the chance to take this nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)
Always at the Carlyle (PG-13) opened June 1 at the Gateway Film Center.

George Clooney sings a New York hotel’s praises in Always at the Carlyle. (Photo by Justin Bare)

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