The Documentary 'Bitterbrush' Is Pure Horse Girl Cinema

Seek out this documentary in theaters this weekend or VOD on June 24.

Colie Moline in Bitterbrush
Magnolia Pictures

Is there a horse girl canon? A canon of art that feels like it truly represents the idea of a horse girl? You could argue for The Return of the King mainly because of the Eowyn sequences. The American Girl doll Felicity. Misty of Chincoteague. More recently The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. Behold the latest entry: Bitterbrush, a documentary about women, their horses, their dogs, and their friendship.

Emelie Mahdavian's film, which is out in theaters this weekend, is a stunning portrait of Colie Moline and Hollyn Patterson, range riders who herd cattle together in the rural Midwest. It's an intimate portrait of an itinerant, isolated lifestyle that is nothing short of a calling. But it's also an examination of what a community looks like, even if that community means just two people and a bunch of animals.

Mahdavian drops the viewer in with Colie and Hollyn as they are preparing to set out for an assignment, loading an unruly horse into a trailer. When they arrive at their destination, they are thrilled that this year they have a whole little house to themselves instead of a camper. Hollyn cracks about wanting a "wife" to cook and clean for them, admitting that is not her own nature, a joke which will ring of irony later. Their coterie of dogs, including a puppy that looks like a baby bear, are there to herd and work, but they also cuddle in bed with their owners. The line between colleague and pet is very thin.

The herding is hard and exhausting for all the creatures involved, but Mahdavian settles into the beautiful rhythms of it. Hollyn and Colie are easily funny as they accidentally anthropomorphize the cows as obstinate children. There’s something peaceful about the way the women break for lunch, making sandwiches from bread that has been flattened in their saddlebags and prepackaged tuna salads. They share a Pepsi between them.

Mahdavian’s camera highlights the visual splendor of her subject’s lives, but their words make the economic realities of the job strikingly clear. Farm labor is in Colie’s blood, and as she sits at a fireplace she talks about the death of her mother, a woman whose hands told the story of her life on the land. It's a monologue that could have been scripted in its poetry, but has the lilt of sorrow that bleeds authenticity.

Bitterbrush makes it evident that this is the only way for Hollyn and Colie, whose ability with horses is effortless, evident in a sequence where Hollyn breaks a small Palomino she names Marilyn because of her blonde mane. But more crucial than their instinctive understanding of animals or environment is their sisterly bond with each other. It’s horse girl cinema, yes, but it’s also deeply human cinema as well.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.