Emelie Mahdavian’s documentary “Bitterbrush” looks at women in a state of becoming, but where most films position their subjects on a threshold — say, the evolution from girl to woman — “Bitterbrush” is about the quiet moments when you’re already an adult but wonder what the next decade or two will bring. A slow-moving feature of itinerant lives cast against the sublime landscapes of the American West, Mahdavian’s film is quiet — but it packs a hell of a punch.
Horses and wide open spaces are in every frame of “Bitterbrush” as we meet Hollyn and Colie putting their horses in the back of a trailer. They’re on their way to a campsite where they’ll spend a season herding cattle off a mountain range. The work is hard and lonely, with only the pair keeping each other company for most of the journey. They revel in the little things, like having a cabin where they can lounge with their dogs.
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“Bitterbrush” revels in the ways silence can connect. The film reveals little about Hollyn and Colie’s relationship, outside the fact that they’ve probably known each other for five years. Understanding the depth of their friendship comes from watching them ride horses or silently enjoy each other’s company shows the depth of their friendship. This is a film that reveals its true power when they give the audience glimpses of their past while around a campfire, or even washing dishes.
On the surface, it’s hard to know why these two beautiful young women would want the itinerant job of herding cattle. “Bitterbrush” can feel like Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” as its two figures going from place to place and hold little to no connections with others. Yet Hollyn and Colie are always talking about their connection to the land.
Colie feels especially conflicted about the way her life has turned out. She struggles to hold back emotion while discussing her mother’s aneurysm and the funeral procession that saw a wagon take her mom back around their property, her horse walking behind her. She would love to have a place of her own, but sees the process of attaining that goal as so punishing that it would not be worth the struggle. Making something of yourself means accepting starvation; for her, this nomadic life feels more acceptable than anything else.
Hollyn, with her bright smile, is the joker of the pair. “I was born ready,” she says. “Also, premature!” Like Colie, Hollyn is used to an itinerant life and, like Colie, her connections to others are different. She achingly talks about losing her dog, even as she apologizes: “I know she’s a dog,” as if that means she can’t be torn up about it.
Cinematographers Derek Howard and Alejandro Mejia do a fantastic job of placing Hollyn and Colie amongst the land they love. The sublime was an 18th-century art movement in which works captured an overwhelming sense of beauty and grandeur beyond calculation; it’s a beautiful irony to see Hollyn and Colie flanked by giant mountains and open plains that threaten to swallow them up as they travel in search of cattle. As much as they’ve removed themselves from the modern world, they seem just as isolated in the grandiosity of nature as they would in any urban environment.
There isn’t a lot that passes for suspense within “Bitterbrush.” Hollyn breaks a colt in an extended sequence that takes on added anxiety as she approaches the horse with a blanket, is forced to draw back, and start over with a saddle. When Hollyn receives news that forces her to question how her life will change, it’s not treated as a revelation; it’s a simple line of text. Her nomadic existence can’t continue, or can it? For her, it wouldn’t be impossible, just “harder.”
That’s the heart of “Bitterbrush:” They don’t necessarily feel there’s much in their life that needs to change. If there’s challenges to face, they find ways to adapt or believe that “God will provide.” For two women so closely bound to nature, it’s not surprising they believe things will work out in the end, no different than the sun rising every day.
Mahdavian is best known as the writer and producer of the critically acclaimed documentary “Midnight Traveler,” but this is her second documentary feature as a director; her first, “After the Curtain,” followed four Tajikistan women who must weigh their passion for dance against the breaking cultural norms of their largely Muslim nation. With “Bitterbrush,” Mahdavian announces herself as a filmmaker with a keen eye for capturing the contradictions and complexities of outsider women’s lives.
“Bitterbrush” premiered at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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