Review: Two women live the grit and grandeur of the range in the documentary ‘Bitterbrush’

Two women with lariats on horseback
Colie Moline, left, and Hollyn Patterson in the documentary “Bitterbrush.”
(Alejandro Mejia / Magnolia Pictures)

Don’t go into the immersive, observational documentary “Bitterbrush” looking for profound insights or roiling conflict but rather a captivating and meditative look at two intrepid young women surviving — and seasonally thriving — in a traditionally male-dominated field: cattle herding.

Director, producer and co-editor Emelie Mahdavian (she wrote, produced and edited 2019’s award-winning doc “Midnight Traveler”) takes us on a unique four-month journey tracking freelance range riders Hollyn Patterson and Colie Moline as they drive 500 pairs of beef cattle over the mountains and plains of Idaho. Tough work — if you can get it.

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This earthy pair of friends and cowgirls, who’ve been working together for five-plus years, handle their daily duties — and nomadic lifestyle (including bunking in a super-rustic cabin) — in an impressively deliberate, no-nonsense fashion. It’s hard not to be wowed by their skill and resourcefulness, whether it’s keeping a herd in line, breaking a colt, tending a sick cow or loading a resistant horse onto a trailer.


Derek Howard and Alejandro Mejía’s camerawork depicts the partners’ grinding, gritty routine with vérité aplomb while also capturing, in grander, big-screen-worthy style, the gorgeous natural vistas that follow Hollyn, Colie and their devoted pack of dogs on their spring-to-fall mission.

To its occasional detriment, the film is decidedly light on the practical details of the women’s daunting task, including their exact route, timetable and methodology. That Mahdavian also doesn’t press her subjects for any greater emotional revelations or musings than what’s randomly divulged can keep us at a bit of a distance.

Still, when Hollyn considers impending motherhood (her fiancé, Elijah, appears here now and then) or recalls a beloved old dog, or when Colie touchingly reminisces about her late mother’s final days, it effectively helps fill out our stars’ inner lives.

Bach piano compositions, performed by the musical duo Anderson & Roe, provide a lovely accompaniment to the film’s sweeping imagery.


Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes

Playing: Starts June 17, Laemmle Noho 7, North Hollywood; available June 24 on VOD