The Rider opens with slow-motion close-ups of an ethereally beautiful equine specimen. We see and hear the sound of the horse breathing. The staggering volume of respiratory air flow incites awe. Turns out Brady, the main character in Chinese director Chloé Zhao’s moving and sorrowful film, is dreaming. In the next shot, he’s in the shower removing bloodied staples from his head.

Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) was a rising rodeo rock star until a bronc ride landed him in the hospital, comatose with a fractured skull. Surgeons fused a metal plate to his cranium, warning that another traumatic blow to the head would be fatal. Quitting, however, is easier said than done. Brady has neither a high school diploma nor GED—and he lives to rodeo: “There’s nothing like strapping yourself on to a 2,000 pound animal and just going with it and I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.” Complicating matters, his incomparable talent for breaking wild horses is in high demand. A Walmart gig just wouldn’t be the same. Brady’s limitations starkly contrast to his South Dakotan environment, where the timeless, remote landscape extends seemingly forever.

Brady’s father, Wayne (Tim Jandreau) and sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), who has Asperger’s syndrome, banter and rail at the breakfast table. Brady shares a special bond with her, sustained by handicaps that limit them in different ways. Wayne, who’s in denial about his gambling and alcohol addictions, admonishes his son for riding the day of the accident. He never passes up a chance to remind Brady that, in essence, the only endeavor he’s ever excelled at, the only way he can produce and contribute—to his family, to the world—is over. Yet growing up, Wayne constantly extolled a hyper-masculine stereotype: real men are always strong and tough; they do not give up.

It’s not a coincidence that the actors playing father, son, and daughter share the same surnames onscreen (Blackburn) and in real life (Jandreau), because they are in fact family. Most everyone in The Rider are first timers, including Lane Scott (playing himself), a former rodeo up-and-comer until he suffered a paralyzing injury. Lane and Brady have been best friends since they were kids, on and off screen. In making The Rider, Zhao has demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for neorealism.

At one point, Brady’s rodeo buddies drop by and drag him out of bed for beers around the campfire. They recount their spills, note how some riders get spooked for good and then, god forbid, “become farmers.” His friends remind him he’s done with rodeo one minute, only to encourage him to get back on the saddle the next. Their conflict reflects the ever-present fear that their careers, even lives, could end in a heartbeat.

The Rider opens at Salem Cinema on June 1.

Photo above: Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn. Courtesy/Sony Pictures Classics