The Rider is an early contender for best film of 2018

“Play the cards you are dealt.” That’s the advice given to Brady Blackburn by his father in The Rider, director Chloé Zhao’s dusty, dreamy new film—which opens wide today—about a teenage rodeo star whose promising bull-riding career is threatened by a tragic head injury. Except that Brady refuses to give up on his dream—because what’s the point of living if you can’t fulfill your God-given purpose?

Zhao wonders the same thing. But even with two celebrated films under her belt, and an all-but assured filmmaking career ahead, she is more ambivalent about her own purpose. “I’m not someone who takes on one identity and lets it form my whole being,” the 35-year-old director says. “I think I’m more a jack of all trades. It’s would be very freeing to be like, ‘This is the one thing I do, and this is who I am.’” At the same time, should that one thing be taken away, it’s harder to be like, “Oh, I’ll just do something else now.’”

Her malleability could have something to do with feeling like an outsider most of her life. Zhao was raised in Beijing, decamped to boarding school in England, college in Massachusetts, and finally graduate school in New York City, where she studied film at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. (Now she lives in Ojai, California.)  “Growing up, I was very rebellious,” she says. “I had this tsunami of influences from Western pop culture. I never formed a strong sense of national or cultural identity. My English has issues, my Chinese has issues. It’s a quite liquid form of identity.”

It was during her post-grad school years in New York that she first felt the pull of the American West. A story she read in the newspaper—about a rash of suicides among teenagers in Native American tribes—led her to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. “I came across some images of a reservation, and even within one frame, there’s so much contradiction,” she says. “You see this young Lakota boy on a horse, but in an urban hip-hop outfit, and it’s next to this really rundown government housing. But then behind that is the most beautiful landscape.” That contradiction—one way of life caught between the past and the present—became the seed of her first film, 2015’s coming-of-age drama Songs My Brothers Taught Me, about a young Lakota boy debating whether to leave his native reservation.

Three years later, she has followed up on Pine Ridge Reservation life with The Rider. Based on a true story, it stars the real-life rodeo star Brady Jandreau and a host of non-professional actors—including his family—all playing lightly fictionalized versions of themselves. “I remember seeing Brady with horses before I ever saw him with people. He had this incredibly sharp focus—actors train for a long time to get that in front of the camera,” Zhao says. “I wanted to see that kind of focus, between him and his dad, him and other people. And he was able to do that.” Like Songs My Brothers Taught Me, much of The Rider’s dialogue is seemingly improvised, the soundtrack sparse. The many months Zhao spent immersed in the reservation’s environment are clearly reflected in the film’s true-to-life style.

After a year spent with the film, touring the festival circuit, and garnering overwhelming critical acclaim—including the top prize at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes earlier this year—Zhao says she’s ready for new projects, new stories. But she’s not quite done exploring the seemingly endless promises the West holds. “It represents a chance to rediscover who you are,” Zhao says. “You’re taken out of your comfort zone of the East. Not just the buildings and the establishments, but what they mean. The thousands of years of history and tradition, you break free of that completely, and then you have to ask yourself, ‘Who am I?’”