Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Telluride Review: Emelie Mahdavarian’s Documentary ‘Bitterbrush’

Like a rock skimmed across the water’s surface until it slows and quickly sinks, Bitterbrush only portrays the obvious of what’s involved in being a cowpoke responsible for rounding up a herd of cows and calves across a vast territory and bringing them in. In the most mundane manner, we see what it takes for two young women to commit themselves to toiling day after day for a full season to get a big job done. But that’s about all there is to this remarkably unrevealing documentary, as filmmaker Emelie Mahdavarian does little to draw the young women out, missing a chance to explore why they chose this life and what they’re made of.


As this writer can attest to, having ridden cattle round-ups in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado on multiple occasions, there’s nothing glamorous, exciting or all that interesting about watching a bunch of cows’ rear ends for days at a time, keeping track of them and trying not to lose any along the way. There can be moments of excitement, of pursuing strays, passing through troublesome territory and dealing with challenging surprises of various kinds. It’s mostly drudgery, but with the significant benefits of magnificent terrain, a sense of freedom and the camaraderie you share with your fellow cowboys and cowgirls.

It’s the latter element that singles out the only real point of interest here, as the focus is on two twentysomething women, Hollyn and Colie, who have been riding the range for five years at this point. They’re friendly, plain-spoken and matter-of-fact about the pros and cons of their lifestyle. But they never go deeper to reveal anything truly interesting or surprising; they’re very much go-along-to-get-along types following in a tradition that’s obviously always been very male-dominated but, as presented, doesn’t seem to be much of an issue at this point.

Except for one thing: At a certain point, Hollyn announces that she’s pregnant, which pretty much signals an end to her cowgirling days for the foreseeable future. But very little is made of this turn of events, which is representative of the film as a whole: There’s not an ounce of drama, conflict, depth, contemplation or sorting through the possibilities of where life might lead her from here. Hollyn is at a major fork in the road, but the way she discusses it gives it precious little weight.

Bitterbrush is a very bland, surface experience that may take you on an excursion you wouldn’t pursue yourself, but one that shows precious little about what’s inside these women or what they might want out of life. Other than for the landscape’s obvious physical beauty, the film reveals virtually nothing.


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