You’ve probably seen history’s first “motion picture.” Today, it looks like the first animated GIF, but in 1878 is must have seemed like sorcery: a bright window appeared on a dark wall, revealing a horse and rider in full gallop — a man and an animal who were not really there. The audience, staring at a flat surface, was suddenly in the presence of a man and a beast who were moving forward and yet holding still.

It was photographer Eadweard Muybridge who, tasked with taking pictures of this race horse and rider, made a discovery that would change the world. The owner and trainer of the horse wanted to examine the animal’s gait in hopes of learning enough to improve it. Would they find a moment when all four hooves were up off of the ground?

What they found lifted us all into a new kind of suspension of disbelief: Here were a few instants of a specific time and place captured forever, as if in amber, for us to study: that particular rider, that particular animal, in that particular minute. This had really happened, and somehow it was happening again. And we were invited to appreciate this event and participate in it even more intimately than we could have before.

It’s uncanny that a horse and rider ushered us into this enchantment. Together, their partnership may still be the most compelling image in cinema: a mysterious merging of motion and intent, cooperation and participation, human and animal, rhythm and mystery, ease and danger. We are captivated by the concept of two powerful entities surrendering some of their individual control in order to make something good possible.

Me, I find that no images live in my memory as vividly as moments in Carroll Ballard’s 1979 masterpiece The Black Stallion, where we watch a small, vulnerable boy on the shore of a desert island, reaching out with a handful of seaweed and whistling to an obstinate, arrogant wild horse, trying to establish a relationship, a partnership, a friendship that would help them both in their crisis of isolation.

Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion (1979).

So perhaps I should have known that I would fall hard for The Rider, the new film from director Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brother Taught Me).

I’m caught up again, forgetting the theater, forgetting that these are images on a big screen, as I watch this new story of a young man and what seems a spiritual summons to ride horses — even the most difficult horses — on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Permit me a short oversimplification: There are two opposing forces at work in filmmaking. One force prioritizes financial success, and so it prioritizes the production of movies that do what has worked before, delivering what will please the most people all at once. These movies, as enjoyable as they can be, are designed to be “accessible” — which means easy, comfortable, conventional, predictable, like the items on menus in fast-food franchises. The other force prioritizes imagination, beauty, and truth. This leads to the cultivation of art that challenges audiences with new visions that require us to think about what we see, wrestle with unfamiliar experiences, discuss differing interpretations and perspectives, and — potentially — change and grow in the process.

This is, of course, a gross generalization. We can’t divide movies into these and those. But every movie, however enjoyable, rewarding, and successful it might be, exists somewhere within the push and pull of those forces.

Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) and Apollo, learning to work together as cameras roll, achieve some of the summer’s best “special effects.”

When we watch a movie about a young man and a horse, we probably anticipate certain things — big races, life-saving heroics, a certain anthropomorphic quality about the horse — because we’ve seen stories like this before. Likewsie, when we watch a movie about a young man who suffers a painful setback during the pursuit of his dreams, we are likely to anticipate the way things will go. He’ll have a girlfriend who sees his potential and “inspires” him out of despair. He’ll catch the eye of a coach or a counselor. At some point, we’ll see a training montage. We know the two likely story arcs. It will end in one of two kinds of glories: he’ll triumph in regaining his hero’s glory, or he’ll burn out in a tragic blaze of glory.

The Rider might look, at first, like a familiar routine: It’s about a cowboy. It has the big-sky backdrop of classic Westerns. It starts with the painful story of a champion who suffers a devastating setback, and whose friends exhort him to “never give up on your dreams!”

But The Rider has an arc and a wisdom all its own. It isn’t made-to-order for people who like horse movies or power-of-positive-thinking fantasies. It dares to make us uncomfortable. It shows us a world that is harder, rougher, and poorer than we expect during a night at the movies.

Brady Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn — which isn’t much of a stretch for him. Blackburn’s story is based on his own.

Brady Blackburn, a young man of Lakota Sioux descent, is about as different from me as any man I know: He’s growing up in a family that doesn’t know how to pay the rent. I grew up in a home my parents owned. Brady depends on his unreliable and cantankerous father, Wayne, who drinks and gambles; I was raised by truthworthy, principled, loving parents. Brady wrestles for fun; I avoid contact sports. Brady wants to climb on the back of a wild animal, one that could easily crush him, and hold on through the violent tantrum; I avoid rodeos — I don’t enjoy watching people and animals put at risk for entertainment.

Nevertheless, I was catapulted out of self-consciousness into breathless belief during one particularly powerful scene in The Rider: the taming of Apollo. With seemingly superhuman powers, Blackburn approaches a snorting, stamping, dangerous animal, reaches out, and offers an invitation. This spectacle isn’t as aesthetically enchanting as those iconic Black Stallion silhouettes of boy and horse against gold-gleaming ocean, nor is it enhanced by a memorable score. But the visceral realism of the horse’s power, the trainer’s courage, and the evolving chemistry between Brady and Apollo give us a documentary-style sequence that will stay with me as one of this year’s — or any year’s — greatest exhibitions of what we call, for lack of a better term, “movie magic.”

I have never tamed a wild horse; I haven’t even gone horseback riding. But something in those tense moments of whispers, whinnies, trouble, and transformation translated as a truth that I recognize — that mysterious thing that happens when someone discovers a particular gift and puts it to work: a dancer born to dance, a writer “in the zone,” a singer who seems to levitate even as she elevates an audience. And in that startling recognition, I begin to see this story of a stranger as a revealing and humbling reflection of my own story, my own passions, my very present challenges, and my possible futures.

I feel this connection, in part, because I can relate to the cognitive dissonance of Blackburn’s decision to approach that wild animal. Blackburn, you see, is not a typical horse trainer. He believes that God put him on this earth “to ride.” And yet, he’s suffered a fall — a literal fall — from that sense of purpose: a bucking horse threw him, kicked him in the head, fractured his skull, and left him forever changed and limited, a metal plate burning in his head as an announcement of permanent fragility. Doctors made it clear: Stop riding if you want to live.

After “God’s plan” for his life seems shattered, Brady Blackburn faces an uncertain future.

As I watch Brady fighting for survival, refusing to give up on his perceived purpose even when his life at risk, I care about him, I want him to succeed, and I see how little separates us.

So it’s unnerving and exciting at the same time to learn (as I did when I started reading about the movie after the end credits rolled) that I’ve been watching the real thing: a gifted trainer taming a particularly obstinate wild horse. The Rider, you see, isn’t just a well-crafted drama. It’s a testimony, a film crafted to convey the truth of Brady’s experience — not just the experience of the character Brady Blackburn, but the truth about the young actor who plays him. Because Brady Jandreau is playing himself: he was forbidden to continue in his perceived purpose as a rider and a rodeo celebrity due to a skull fracture. And that scene of Blackburn’s taming of Apollo? It was not, apparently, part of the plan. It was an actual event that Zhao captured on camera and wove into her fiction.

That spontaneously captured scene correlates powerfully with another not-so-fictional sequence in which we watch this soft-spoken cowboy apply his talents for coaching, training, and tenderness for the good of a wounded friend. Lane Scott — who is in both the movie and the “real world” a former rodeo rider, now a paraplegic in a care center — shows us where Blackburn could end up if he refuses to heed his doctors’ warnings. But Scott’s importance here is greater than that: He’s also a revelator of Blackburn’s other unusual gifts. With an intimacy rarely found among men, even brothers, Blackburn and Scott, unified by their loves and limitations, engage in a shared imaginative endeavor — a simulated ride, on a saddle, hands gripping the reins. Again we see our hero’s natural gift for calming troubled spirits, reassuring wounded souls, and investing himself in beautiful acts of rehabilitation.

The extent to which The Rider depicts the day-to-day reality of Brady Jandreau is even more ambitious than that. His family plays themselves — his sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), his father Wayne (Tim Jandreau). And the persuasiveness, familiarity, and intimacy of these portraits are even more impressive if we know that The Rider wasn’t directed by someone who grew up in this context; rather, Zhao comes to the U.S. from Beijing, bringing a distinctly meditative sensibility that makes familiar subjects seem fresh and new.

Zhao is my favorite kind of filmmaker here: one driven by curiosity, attentive to silences and questions, inclined toward understatement and suggestiveness, open to the unexpected, willing to work spontaneously, enthusiastic about revising her initial concepts based on new discoveries. This movie could have had that feeling of a forced narrative, of broad-stroke entertainment. But she knows that life has much more to offer us when we aren’t driven by “what sells.”

Favoring close-ups of faces, scars, tattoos, hands, and soft-spoken exchanges, cinematographer James Joshua Richards offers the audience an impressive intimacy with actors and animals, and the non-actors in the cast are, for the most part, convincing. And when Richards pulls back for the kind of panoramic shots we might expect from a film like this, Zhao avoids the typical swells of musical bombast.

If anything aggravates me in this film, it’s just how much the camera adores Jandreau, as if one of Zhao’s primary goals with The Rider is to launch him into a new career as a movie star. It could happen — Jandreau looks like a perfect amalgam of a very young Heath Ledger and a very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But there are a few too many moments — including one in which he plays around with a gun — that feel framed to advertise his potential.

Nevertheless, Zhao’s more poetic inclinations counteract any way in which The Rider could be perceived as a typical hero story. In my first-impression comments after the movie, I argued that it works as a deconstruction of Western white-male self-aggrandizement — but I wasn’t giving enough attention to its context or to the Jandreau family’s Native American roots. As Zhao herself told Bilge Ebiri (Village Voice)“Some of [the reservation’s young men] look just like white kids, but they’re real members of the Sioux tribe. They’re born, raised, and live on a reservation. Some would be offended if you called them white.” My mistake. This isn’t a critique of iconic American heroes; it’s something more like a lament for the Lakota Sioux and their struggles to sustain cultural identity and tradition in a nation that, while boasting of “liberty and justice for all,” continues to erase the territories, traditions, and identities of indigenous peoples.

Don’t get me wrong: The Rider is never preachy or heavy-handedly political. It doesn’t sensationalize the family’s poverty or fetishize Reservation culture. Zhao demonstrates an admirable focus on faces, gestures, and silences, allowing her characters to speak like ordinary people without any “loaded” dialogue.

She also avoids the narrative conventions that help hard stories like these go down easy for audiences. She doesn’t give Blackburn a sexy girlfriend and magical mentor and an arc that ends in Karate-Kid-style triumph over adversity. The closest thing to a mentor for Blackburn appears in the form of his autistic sister Lilly, whose irrepressible spirit becomes a voice of conscience in his struggle and a spark of joy in his darkness. What begins as a conventional father-son conflict takes unconventional turns — Wayne and Brady are too convincingly human to become predictable. And while Blackburn’s most unsettling head-injury symptom is the tendency of his right hand to lock up on whatever it holds, even that obvious metaphor is employed with subtlety.

Tim and Lilly Jandreau, Brady Jandreau’s father and sister, play his character’s family in the film.

Zhao also resists temptations that other filmmakers would have easily embraced for the sake of crowdpleasing: She doesn’t indulge the opportunities to jar and scar her audience at the rodeo. And, unlike 2018’s other impressive movie about a boy and a horse — Lean on Pete — she doesn’t sucker-punch the audience with the horror of animals in crisis. (Caution: If you had trouble with the barbed-wire scene in Spielberg’s War Horse, you might want to steer clear of Lean on Pete, which includes a moment so jarring I actually doubled over and felt sick for the rest of the movie.) When trouble comes to one of The Rider’s animals, Zhao frames it with such tenderness that the effect is more about grief than horror.

Surprisingly, The Rider is much more about grief than resilience or determination. Imagine falling from the stature of a celebrity rodeo rider to stocking shelves at Wal-mart in the standard blue of a company uniform, your once-masterful right hand now seizing up from your injuries around a “gun” that zaps only bar codes. When Blackburn encounters a young fan in the supermarket, he is both thrilled by the remembrance that he, doing what he loves best, made a difference, and also wounded all over again by the realization that those moments are behind him.

While I have never experienced so drastic a fall, this is where The Rider speaks to me most powerfully, translating truth from the language of its own context into my own.

I’m increasingly impatient with stories about young men who should prioritize achieving their dreams against all odds because I sense in them, more and more as I get older, a narrow imagination and a lack of wisdom. “You Can Make Your Dreams Come True” stories can do more harm than good for those who would do better to expand their sense of what is possible.

I’ve heard myself declare that “God put me on this earth to write.” I’ve heard myself describe writing as “my calling.” Such a claim has served me well — it has given me a sort of Divine Permission to boast that God has assigned me to do what I want to do, what I enjoy doing, what gives me the greatest sense of command and confidence. I’ve ignored the fact that the Scriptures’ examples of God’s “calling” are never about the advancement of an individual’s dreams for personal accomplishment. When God calls someone, that someone usually ends up wounded, frustrated, sometimes even half-mad with the struggle. A “calling,” a wise counselor once told me, is probably not something you should hope that God gives you. Jacob limps away from the scene of his “calling” — his “blessing” is manifested as an injury, announcing itself with every awkward, limping step forward.

I look back now at my naive younger self, seeing more clearly what it would cost me — and, more importantly, others — if I were to insist on the “calling” that I wanted to believe in. Do you know what it takes to live a life like that? Do you know the resources that are required, the people who have to invest in you and support you, the isolation you have to cultivate, the people you have to shut out and let down?

I think about this as I spend my days preparing lesson plans for my classes, grading student essays, and wishing that I was off on an adventure of my own, writing my own stories, achieving new publications. I’ve tasted something of the fulfillment of my childhood dreams, and it was exhilarating. There are moments when I’d give almost anything to know that exhilaration again, to see my name in the lights of the “New & Noteworthy” displays at the front of Barnes and Noble bookstores. “Look at how God has rewarded your hard work!” people said to me. “You’ve been faithful to your dreams, and they are coming true!” Perhaps there was some truth in that.

But the story took a hard turn — one not worth detailing here. Suffice it to say that our dreams rarely align with the hardships of this difficult world. I suffered a “fall” when toxic conditions in a hostile work environment dealt heavy blows to my health, began swallowing up all of my time and energy, and brought a swift conclusion to my publishing career. Feeling wronged, I had to grieve the loss of that life and fumble toward a new vision. While I don’t have a metal plate in my head, like Brady Blackburn does, forcing me to face hard new realities, I struggle at times with resentment toward those who harmed me. I struggle with jealousy about those who find easy publishing success. I struggle with surges of self-righteousness. And, yes, I miss the thrill of the spotlight, as I bear up under adulthood’s heavier demands, serving other writers rather than prioritizing the production and publication of my own work.

But this path, which I perceived as a “setback” or a “surrender,” is — I now understand — the better path. I have discovered more substantial joys and a more fulfilling sense of purpose in teaching, even as I fight to accept how rarely I get to go out and “ride” on my own. This is a less glamorous road, but it leads deeper into lessons of humility, cultivation of community, and a deepening of faith. A healthy dream is one that seeks God’s true will, rather than one that imagines that God’s will aligns with your own fantasies about individual achievement.

Brady’s right hand has a will of its own now — and it shows him the need to let go.

The most compelling conflict in The Rider isn’t so much about a man being thrown from a bucking horse that he sought to control; it’s about a man who finds that God’s will isn’t something he can embrace by insisting on his own desires. “Follow your heart” only works if your heart is whole, healthy, and selfless.

I’ve heard some point to The Rider as a movie about a young man’s simple faith in “God’s plan for his life,” and I just don’t see it. I see it as a movie about an adolescent’s slow and difficult realization that his ideas about his future were too narrow, too self-serving. Faith grows within a context of limitations and uncertainties. The Rider becomes a movie about how pain — particularly the pain of loss and disappointment — enables us to become better fellow sufferers, bearing one another’s burdens. Blackburn must commit himself to loving and serving his sister and his father — and his friend Lane Scott, who faces such daunting daily challenges and setbacks to his “dreams” that I find them hard to imagine.

In a scene late in the film, Blackburn steers his truck off the road and weeps. It’s the opposite of what we expect from a movie about a guy in a cowboy hat who encounters seemingly insurmountable obstacles on his path to fulfilling his dream. But it’s the release that he needs — that we need, if we are to escape the inevitable damages of vanity and certainty. It’s the necessary grieving that must take place in order to surrender what was never ours to claim in the first place, making room for what is best.

After Blackburn loses what he claimed was “God’s plan,” we don’t hear him talk about God again. But we do see a slow surrender, a willingness to cooperate. In Brady’s slow education of Apollo and in his embrace of Lane — as in those ancient Eadweard Muybridge images of a horse and rider — we see lives achieving a sort of flight in love and cooperation: a greater good. We get a glimpse of what can happen when we loosen our grip on the reins of our lives, when the fear of God and reverence for his will becomes the beginning of wisdom.