Review by Sean Boelman
A great verite documentary can make you care about its subject even if you aren’t initially invested in the topic. Emelie Mahdavian does just that with her sophomore feature Bitterbrush, effectively making a nonfiction Western and offering an unexpectedly compelling glimpse into the world of cowgirls.
The film follows two women facing an uncertain future as they work as seasonal cowgirls, herding cattle across the American West. Watching two women herding cattle and going through the mundanities of their lives may not seem like something that is interesting to watch, but it’s a unique world explored well.
Over the course of four seasons, we get to know these women, watching them as they go about their work and occasionally leisure. Their personalities are wonderfully captured by Mahdavian in a way that really makes the viewer feel like they are receiving intimate access to every aspect of their lives.
One of the most interesting things about the movie is that it explores important ideas of representation without being overly forceful with them. To really foster inclusivity, it takes normalization, not exceptionalism, and by taking this slice-of-life approach, Mahdavian really normalizes what these women are doing.
The film does a great job of getting us invested in their personal lives beyond their professional work. This is a story all about change and coping with the uncertainty of the future, something that all of us have had to deal with at some point or another. While you might not identify directly with their story, the themes are resonant nevertheless.
In a way, the movie is also an ode to friendship. The dynamic between the two subjects of the film is fascinating and the ways in which it grows and develops even over the course of just one year. But like so many of our connections in life, they grow apart as they grow individually, and the movie explores that brilliantly.
Visually, the film is absolutely gorgeous to look at thanks to the way in which Mahdavian and cinematographers Derek Howard and Alejandro Mejía approach the remote American landscape. There have been plenty of beautiful depictions of rustic America before, but this one really stands out.
Bitterbrush is a breathtaking movie, both in how it depicts the American landscape and how it connects the audience with its subjects. Who knew that a documentary about this topic could be as compelling as this?
Bitterbrush is now in theaters and hits VOD on June 24.