If you were asked to imagine American representations of masculinity, odds are you’d land on professional sports sooner rather than later. More specifically, you might land on two sports, one old and one new: the rodeo, which has delighted small towns across the Midwest for centuries, and American football, which often determines the peking order of otherwise-similar small towns. It is in these sports that we found some of the most haunting images of American poverty of 2018, including dark horse award season candidate The Rider and consistently underrated anthology series Last Chance U. Although they may occupy very different places in American pop culture, the two properties have eerily similar things to say about the upward mobility of certain youth segments.
In 2016, Netflix debuted Last Chance U, an original documentary series that explores what happens to former college football standouts when they’re forced to take a reclamation year at a junior college. These are teenagers whose academic or extracurricular activities have led to an untimely departure from the biggest schools in NCAA football; instead of playing at modern stadiums in front of 70,000+ fans, these athletes are stuck in towns like Scooba, Mississippi — population 694 — where they do their best to win over Division I recruiters and carve out a path back to the highest level of college sports. Thus the nickname that gives the show its title: these JUCO teams are often the last chance for players with multiple behavioral strikes to keep their hope of playing in the NFL alive.
The most recent season of Last Chance U — the show’s third and first away from the state of Mississippi — features many of the same confessionals and behind-the-scenes camaraderie you’d expect from a sports documentary, but what makes it arguably the most important sports television series of its era is the complex socioeconomic factors that play into each student’s football career. As each season progresses, we often visit the hometowns and families of a few key players; these visits underscore the financial and familial pressures put on these athletes to succeed. Some, like Season 3 standout Malik Henry, are branded as difficult even after years of helicopter parenting have destroyed what little passion they may have had for the game; these athletes continue to play out of a dull sense of responsibility to their family and physical gifts. Others, like Season 3 quarterback coach Frank Diaz, would gladly accept an unpaid coaching gig for little more than the uncertain prospect that bigger and better opportunities may eventually head his way.
Meanwhile, the unique position of junior colleges in these students’ career arcs — they are by design a place meant to house star athletes for as short a period as possible — creates a frustrating tension between player and coach. Football demands the individual to succumb to the team, but the success of schools like Independence Community College is directly tied to the willingness of these Division I athletes to play below their skillset for a few months of the year. The culture of football demands that you succumb to the needs of the team, but most players know that their JUCO coaches do not have their longterm best interest at heart and have to prioritize self-interest — which, in turns, raises ‘red flags’ about their character. It’s a system skewed heavily in favor of the teams at the expense of the young men working their way up. Diaz may not have a paycheck to speak of, but coach Jason Brown will let the cameras roll as he closes in on another Cadillac.
And then there’s The Rider. While nominally a work of fiction, writer-director Chloé Zhao’s feature film hews closely to the real-life accident that nearly cost lead actor Brady Jandreau his life. Zhao had originally met Jandreau on the set of her debut feature Songs My Brother Taught Me; in April, she told Vanity Fair that watching Jandreau recover from a life-threatening rodeo accident was the inspiration for her film. “In the case of rodeo and Brady, the chance of him returning is very slim,” she explained. “But not a day goes by that this man has given up on the rodeo or continued to live in a way where he could be close to these animals.” To capture the authenticity of this experience, Zhao eschewed formal actors in favor of Jandreau and his family and rodeo community; as such, The Rider plays out as a lightly dramatized version of its own historical events.
With sweeping shots of the South Dakota badlands and quiet interludes featuring a man and his horse, The Rider is very much a contemporary western, but one lost in the bleak present of rural America. There’s a cruel indifference to how Jandreau’s friends downplay his health risks; despite a scar running the length of his head, his friends appeal to his masculinity and offer outdated platitudes about how nothing can keep a good cowboy down. Like Last Chance U, there’s a shortsightedness to these exchanges — an unwillingness to look beyond the indestructible qualities of youth— that speaks to a culture where young men are always replaceable. Both Jandreau and his paralyzed mentor have wrapped their self-identity up in the business of rodeos, but as the film proves, there is no shortage of adolescents ready to strap themselves to a bronco and sacrifice their body in the name of cowboy culture. If most contemporary westerns depict the transition between the past and the present, then The Rider offers a vision of the past stagnating in the present.
So while The Rider may be the more prestigious of the two —it is the Cannes Film Festival standout to Last Chance U’s (undeserved) status as Just Another Netflix Show™ — the gap between the two is considerably smaller than it may appear on first glance. In a year where every major publication is seeking out overlooked anecdotes from dying middle America, the stories told in The Rider and Last Chance U capture the perversion of the American dream better than any New York Times op-ed ever could. When sports, youth, and poverty collide, these young men fall into family traditions and believe that violent acts of entertainment are the only way to make a better life for themselves. Walk away on your own terms and at least you may still have your health.