NEW YORK — Chloe Zhao is driving through the Arizona desert just north of Mexico on a research expedition for a film.
"I'm keeping an eye on the border," chuckles Zhao, a Chinese-born, U.S.-based filmmaker. "I don't have my passport with me."
In her young and promising career, Zhao has made flirting with boundaries a specialty. She was born in Beijing and attended boarding school in England before studying political science at Massachusetts' Mount Holyoke College and filmmaking at New York University.
Despite a life spent mainly in cities, she's been drawn intractably to the American heartland. After reading about the epidemic of teen suicides on Indian reservations, she packed up and drove from New York to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She stayed, on and off, for four years, and made two films there: 2015's "Songs My Brother Taught Me," an affecting study of Lakota siblings, and the new "The Rider," a lyrical, elegiac western about a Lakota rodeo rider (Brady Jandreau) whose career is threatened by a head injury.
Each stars Pine Ridge non-professional actors playing versions of themselves — an approach that lends an unfiltered authenticity to an often mythic American genre. Earthly and soulful, Zhao's films find pain and beauty in humble lives lived close to the land. They take cinema somewhere new, and somewhere real.
"There are just all these rules about how films can be made today. It becomes like a bubble, an industry that's quite detached from reality in many ways," Zhao said in a recent interview by phone from a remote Arizona road. "Independent film has suffered from that."
The films — particularly "The Rider," which Sony Pictures Classics will release Friday — have made the 35-year-old Zhao a breakout filmmaker and an in-demand director. When she was given a $50,000 grant earmarked for female filmmakers at the Film Independent Spirit Awards in March, Ava DuVernay said, introducing Zhao: "Her work burns so bright it burns my eyes."
"The Rider" has been a quiet sensation on the festival circuit since winning the top prize of Cannes' Directors' Fortnight last year. It's prompted comparisons to early Terrence Malick films like the (more painterly) frontier drama "Days of Heaven." Zhao grants Malick is a touchstone.
"People are like, 'You must know Terry, right?'" Zhao says, laughing. "I always say, 'Actually no. If you see him, please tell him he's got a fan.'"
Alongside the 22-year-old Jandreau, "The Rider" co-stars most of the people in his life: his autistic sister Lilly, his father Tim and many of his friends, including bull rider Lane Scott, who was paralyzed from a 2013 car crash.
Zhao became intrigued about making a movie about Jandreau while watching him recovered from a head injury when he was trampled during a rodeo competition. Despite the risk of re-injury, he refused to give up riding. They first met when Jandreau, a talented and sensitive horse trainer, taught Zhao how to ride.
"I never met anybody from China. I never met a director. I didn't know anything about movies," said Jandreau speaking from his home in South Dakota. He lives there with his wife and their 8-month-old daughter. On a recent afternoon, he spoke on the phone after checking on a just-born calf.
"Chloe wasn't scared to get on a horse so I shouldn't be scared to say a line or whatever the hell," said Jandreau.
Zhao gives Jandreau more credit. "I'm not as good at riding horses as he is at acting," she says. "I figured if he can manipulate the emotions of a horse, he can probably do that with the audience. I just had a feeling he might be good."
Zhao came up with the story a month before shooting, shaping it around Jandreau's own experiences. For Jandreau, not being able to ride was an existential threat. "It's all I love," he says. "It's all I do." He was able to ride on a horse by himself, he says, since he was a year-a-half old.
"A very well-trained horse," says Jandreau. "I was still in a diaper."
It's been much the same for his daughter. Jandreau estimates she's been riding 40 times already, on 20 different horses. She's also been on a lot of planes. With "The Rider," the Jandreaus have traveled to Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Austin and elsewhere. Jandreau, who has started a horse breeding and training program since shooting the film, also would like to keep acting — a goal supported by the rave reviews he's received.
"I've actually auditioned for a couple things," said Jandreau. "Looking forward to acting again, hopefully. If things go well, I guess."
Zhao is juggling a handful of projects, unsure which will be next for her. One is a historic western about a black sheriff. Another is set 5,000 years in the future in China. "So no more real life for a while," she jokes. But Zhao senses a lot of opportunity coming her way.
"I feel like the industry really wants to support female filmmakers. It feels a lot more open than a year ago," says Zhao. "But at the same time I'm also very careful because the people who jump on the bandwagon now will jump off when the next social issue becomes popular."
"There's a huge shift," she adds. "There's some part of it that's going to stick."
Zhao will likely work with professional actors in the future, but even in larger productions, she expects to continue to look beyond the usual head shots.
"Even the historic western and the sci-fi, I'm going to want to include unfamiliar faces and unconventional casting," says Zhao. "I think it throws everybody off a little bit, including myself. And that's a good thing."