Telluride 2021 Review: Emelie Mahdavian’s “Bitterbrush” Looks for Home on the Range

“This is going to be awesome,” Colie says, upon arriving at the cabin she’ll be staying in for the next four months in “Bitterbrush,” marveling at the relatively modest accommodations that include water, slippers and, most excitingly, a poker set as she does some light sweeping. Hollyn, her partner on the prairie, is equally excited about their good fortune, exclaiming, “A camper, a cabin…maybe next a mansion?” as she beats out the bird poop on a mattress pad, and their genuine enthusiasm for these basic necessities is infectious as director Emelie Mahdavian settles in for a season in which the two are called in as freelancers to corral stray cattle on the plains.

The open acreage of the American west would appear to be less dangerous territory than Mahdavian last traversed as a producer of “Midnight Traveler,” aiding fellow filmmaker Hazzan Fazili get footage out of his native Afghanistan as his family sought asylum after the Taliban put a bounty on his head. But it is not without its share of obstacles for Colie and Hollyn, both rugged young women who look more than capable of handling anything that comes their way. Given the history of westerns, it seems like an act of mild subversion that “Bitterbrush” opens with Hollyn’s boyfriend Elijah giving her a kiss to send her off to work, rather than the other way around, but the moment, which doesn’t call much attention to itself, is integral for other reasons when you realize that the relationship gives a stability to Hollyn that eludes Colie, who is content with the work she does, but wonders what the future holds, caught in an unfortunate standoff with her brother regarding the farm that’s been in their family and seeing diminishing returns in a field that’s increasingly edging out mom and pop farmers.

Even without the increasing consciousness of what Colie and Hollyn face outside of the rigors of the job directly in front of them, a mark of meticulous editing on the part of Mahdavian and editor Curtiss Clayton who rarely remove the viewer from the film’s experiential nature, it is easy to admire the grit and determination of the two as you venture into the mountains with them and their gaggle of dogs to round up far larger herds of cows than you could imagine any duo would be capable of. One 15-minute stretch of Hollyn’s attempts to tame a colt is riveting in how it reveals how much she’s invested into her work, and throughout the pair’s gentle encouragement to one another and offers of help (usually refused) add up to a lovely depiction of friendship that often doesn’t make it onto cameras — it is tempting to rebrand the film “Second Cow,” the updated, all-female remake of Kelly Reichardt’s tender 2019 drama minus the clafoutis.

The work “Bitterbrush” presents is undoubtedly punishing at times, but Mahdavian lets you see in it what Colie and Hollyn do, occasionally sneaking in static shots of the wide open sky full of stars at night and drawing on beautiful renditions of Bach concertos by pianists Anderson and Roe to underscore the feeling of controlling their own destiny they have on horseback. Riding along with them is a joy and at the point where everyone has to get off the saddle, there is both the deep appreciation for the experience and the apprehension of stepping back into a world filled with uncertainty.

“Bitterbrush” will screen again at the Telluride Film Fest on September 4th at 7:45 pm and September 6th at 9 am.