Chloé Zhao’s authentic, tender docudramas of the American West

Society & Culture

Chloe Zhao won the Golden Globe for Best Director for "Nomadland" on Sunday, making now a perfect time to revisit her earlier movies about the American West.

"Songs My Brothers Taught Me" and "The Rider"

Last Sunday, Chloé Zhao became the first woman of Asian descent (and second woman overall) to win the Golden Globe for Best Director. Zhao’s film Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand as a drifter traveling and working around the western United States in her van, also garnered an award in the Best Motion Picture – Drama category. The victory has sparked a lot of buzz on social media, including in China, where Zhao was born and brought up until her teenage years. In a cover story in New York Magazine, it’s noted the director moved to the Koreatown in Los Angeles in 2000. What she found was “not what [she] saw in the movies.” Across her first three feature films, Zhao has cast her camera on characters seldom represented in American cinema. Her work is a skillful blend of fiction and reality, shunning sensationalism or sentimentality for an authentic, tender perspective on the American West.

After graduating from film school in New York, Zhao made her feature-length debut, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015). Set in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the film follows Jashuan (Jashuan St. John) and Johnny Winters (John Reddy), a brother and sister of the Oglala Lakota tribe. The Winters live with their mother Lisa; their estranged father, a drinker and gambler with over 25 children, has just recently died. John, a teen in his last year of high school, wants to leave the reservation with his girlfriend. He sells beer illegally, and makes no secret of his plan. The younger Jashuan becomes depressed over the thought of her brother leaving, so she takes her mind off things by befriending and helping a local artist.

Nomadland has been acclaimed for using nonprofessional actors and incorporating their lives into the film, elements found in Zhao’s work from the beginning. Originally, Songs was supposed to be a scripted drama called Lee, but her lack of funds turned it into something experimental and improvised. In an interview at the time, Zhao said, “My job was to capture authentic moments Pine Ridge and my cast were giving me and try to navigate a story around it.” This resulted in scenes like Jashuan visiting what was left of her father’s burned-down home, a house that had actually caught fire while the actress and her family were living there.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me was received warmly in the indie community, and even made its way into the Cannes Film Festival. The nonprofessional cast gives incredible, nuanced performances, and the beauty and harshness of the landscape comes out well in the film’s cinematography by Zhao’s boyfriend and collaborator Joshua James Richards. While it’s a good debut, however, Songs suffers from a messy focus and several tedious cliches. (There’s even the obligatory scene of a teacher asking his troubled students what they’re going to do with their futures.) Zhao’s second film The Rider (2017) is a major improvement, being a spiritual kindred in its similar themes of poverty, family dysfunction, and individualism on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

But while Songs portrayed the community through its kids and teens, The Rider is about a young man, a cowboy named Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau). Once a star at the rodeo, Brady’s career is thrown into turmoil when he falls off a horse and gets his head kicked. The attack leaves him with brain damage and an injured right hand, but most painful of all is his doctor’s order to give up the rodeo. Heartbroken, Brady has to choose between his greatest love and his own life. Brady’s friends try to lure him back in, but a crippled pal named Lane serves as a reminder that next time he might not be so lucky. As he grapples with the change, Brady is concerned about how he’ll support his family, having little choice but to pick up a stifling job working at a grocery store.

While she was filming Songs, Zhao met Brady’s actor Brady Jandreau at a ranch, and became interested in casting him in a movie. Before they could proceed with any ideas, Jandreau himself had a near-fatal accident at a rodeo in April 2016. His recovery ended up as the basis of The Rider, and the movie features friends and relatives playing fictionalized versions of themselves.

Jandreau’s father Tim and autistic sister Lilly join him in the cast, along with his friend Lane Scott and wife Terri Dawn Pourier, the latter appearing in a cameo in a bar. The Rider is a beautiful, modern Western, featuring a star with more depth and sensitivity than the usual tough, stoic cowboys who populate the dusty plains.

Following its release, The Rider was a critical darling, making a number of best-of-the-year lists. Actress Frances McDormand was just one of the many viewers who was blown away, leading her to approach Zhao with a proposal to direct an adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. The result, of course, was Nomadland, which has continued Zhao’s fascination with the figure of a determined, hard-working outsider in the American West. Her fourth film, the hotly-anticipated Marvel blockbuster Eternals, is the story of an alien race called the Eternals and their battle with the evil Deviants. While the project is a far cry from the raw world of broken-down cowboys and elderly folks living in vans portrayed in her previous films, it’ll be interesting to see how Zhao’s signature themes and style will be filtered through Hollywood fare.

At the time of this writing, Nomadland is available for streaming on Hulu. Songs My Brothers Taught Me can be found on Amazon Video and Mubi, while The Rider is on Pluto TV with ads, as well as Amazon Video and other VOD services.