August 16, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Emelie Mahdavian
Culture Representation: Taking place in Idaho and briefly in Montana, the documentary film “Bitterbrush” features an all-white group of people representing the working-class.
Culture Clash: Two women, who are best friends and range riders, deal with harsh weather conditions and unstable job opportunities in their line of work.
Culture Audience: “Bitterbrush” will appeal primarily to people interested in movies about rancher lifestyles and women who work in male-dominated professions.
Filmed with earnest simplicity, “Bitterbrush” is an up-close portrait of two female range riders working in rural Idaho. People who appreciate rancher documentaries and stunning, mountainous cinematography might be interested. Everyone else might be bored.
That’s because “Bitterbrush” (directed by Emelie Mahdavian) is not a movie filled with a lot of drama or major surprises. There is one surprise in the movie, but it’s not shocking. This cinéma vérité-styled documentary focuses on two women in their 20s—Colie Moline and Hollyn Patterson—who are best friends and range riders. They take work when and where they can find it, which means that any job they do isn’t permanent, and they often have to travel for their next job.
It goes without saying that men are the majority of workers who do outdoor jobs that involve a lot of traveling, dealing with harsh weather, and living in isolated areas. Female range riders are rare. “Bitterbrush” lacks suspense but gives an unflinching look at what it takes to be range rider, albeit from the perspectives of two people who have the benefit of working closely with a best friend. Don’t expect any movie clichés of these two pals arguing with each other and having a falling out, because it doesn’t happen in “Bitterbrush.”
“Bitterbrush” (which shows a year in the life of Moline and Patterson) doesn’t give a lot of information on how long Moline and Patterson have been working together, but they both grew up either on a ranch or a farm. At the time this documentary was filmed, the two women had been friends for five or six years. Almost all of “Bitterbrush” chronicles the seasonal job that Moline and Patterson had in an unnamed mountainous part of Idaho, where they mostly had to herd cattle through the mountains.
Accompanied by their respective dogs (Moline has a dog named Lucy; Patterson has a dog named Rudy Two), the two women are shown herding cattle (sometimes in snowy weather) and training horses. Although they live in complete isolation, Patterson’s husband Elijah is also there and is seen occasionally in the documentary. Because they move from job to job, their lifestyle is truly nomadic.
Patterson talks about how Rudy Two’s mother was a beloved dog that died from illness and old age. Patterson says of the deceased dog: “I thought about burying her, but there’s no home. We’ve never been home anywhere. We’ve always had these riding jobs, where you move places.”
Moline comments, “I love this work. I love this lifestyle. I do believe I have skill sets for it. I don’t want to be working for a house my whole life and just making the bills. I’d like to find something where I do my own thing—or at least say that I have some cows.”
Moline adds, “I’m just trying to figure out the right opportunity and working with people who want to see that for you. That’s not always a thing to do. Or maybe I’ll just be so good at it, I’ll become a millionaire and can buy my own ranch.”
Patterson is the more stoic and even-tempered of the two women. She takes the lead in most of their ranch duties, while Moline is more likely to follow or observe as if she is learning from Patterson. For example, there’s a scene where Patterson and Moline are training a horse. Moline watches Patterson handle the horse before Moline steps in to try what Patterson was showing her. Patterson is more self-assured and patient with the horse, while Moline has a tendency to get more frustrated. When the horse bites Moline, she smacks it lightly.
Patterson’s more guarded personality also extends to how little she says about her background in the documentary. By contrast, Moline opens up about her past, including coping with grief over her mother’s death from a brain aneurysm. Moline says that her mother was on life support for three days before she died.
Moline’s voice cracks with emotion when she remembers, “The good thing that did come out of those three days is I did get to memorize her hands. My mom was always self-conscious about her hands because she worked so dang hard. They were always calloused—similar to mine.”
Moline also talks about the strained relationship she has with her brother and her father. She and her brother Jake don’t really get along with each other. And the main issue she has with her farmer father is that he wants her to come home to work at the family farm. Moline says that small business farmers, such has her father, have hardships because they’re being increasingly priced out of the marketplace by big farming businesses.
One of the standout features of “Bitterbrush” is the cinematography by Derek Howard and Alejandro Mejía, particularly for the outdoor scenes. The documentary doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but viewers can get swept up in the majestic landscapes that are visually captured for this movie. People who are inclined to enjoy movies that show ranch animals will also find plenty to like in “Bitterbrush.”
However, “Bitterbrush” is not a documentary for everyone. The pacing can be very slow. And the movie is honest in showing how range riding can be unglamorous, repetitious and physically demanding. Still, for anyone who might be curious about what happens to Moline and Patterson by the end of the year that’s documented in this film, it’s enough to say that “Bitterbrush” is worth watching to see how these two friends end up taking different paths in their lives.
Magnolia Pictures released “Bitterbrush” in select U.S. cinemas on June 17, 2022. The movie was released on digital VOD on June 24, 2022.