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A unique coming-of-age story, Emelie Mahdavian’s immersive, observational documentary Bitterbrush takes viewers fully into a world many aren’t likely to have experienced. Following friends Colie Moline and Hollyn Patterson through their final summer herding cattle together on a remote ranch before life takes them in new, separate directions, it conveys emotions that are as big as the Idaho sky while maintaining a tight focus on the two young women and their relationship with each other.

There’s no narration in Bitterbrush — just a camera that quietly follows Colie and Hollyn as they go about the business of wrangling cows, accompanied only by their dogs and horses. It’s hard, physical work, but neither woman is ever shown complaining; on the contrary, they seem to wholly love the job and the opportunity it gives them to spend time with each other in the beautiful landscape they love. They talk about everything and nothing, as best friends do, and many times simply enjoy companionable silence. Intertitles are used sparingly to convey the key life developments that mean change is on its way.

It’s impossible to watch Bitterbrush and not think of Brokeback Mountain, but, luckily for them, these friends aren’t caught up in a drama of that magnitude. They have their own choices to make and realities to come to terms with, but there’s never any question that each will be there for the other, wherever their paths take them. It’s also impossible to spend time with Colie and Hollyn and not compare them with the many other young women their age who obsess over things like social media and taking the perfect selfie. Not that Colie and Hollyn are incapable of being silly or frivolous — but their priorities are refreshingly grounded.

Mahdavian’s cinematography is beautiful, adeptly capturing the sweeping vistas that both women are so grateful for. As you watch the seasons change and the friends’ last summer come to its inevitable end, it’s clear that while life is inexorably moving on, both the breathtaking landscape and Colie and Hollyn’s love for each other will endure. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Leslie Combemale There’s no calm like following-ranch-hand-for-hire-in-remote-wilderness calm. The meditative classical music that accompanies their travels and work lowers the heart rate even more, and when you add the gorgeous landscapes and the easy camaraderie between Colie and Hollyn, and, last but never least, their love of 12 pups, the cumulative scenario makes Bitterbrush a super compelling watch. They show themselves to be both aberrant and exactly what you’d expect as cowgirls. One of them loves Hormel corned beef hash in a can. The other just wants to own her own cows. “I love this work. I love this lifestyle”, she says. They share their heartaches and loss, their dreams and worries, often in very poetic ways. Bitterbrush reminds us all how beautiful it can be just to hear two girlfriends be honest and caring with each other, no matter what happens.

Loren King Emelie Mahdavian’s observational documentary Bitterbrush accumulates in quiet power and poignancy; by the end, I didn’t want to leave the two young women cattle herders that the film follows. Bitterbrush shares some similarities with Andrea Arnold’s exquisite Cow from earlier this year. Service animals play a central role in both films which immerse the viewer in grinding, day to day routines. But Bitterbrush focuses more on the two friends whose lives are bound up with the animals. Hollyn Patterson and Colie Moline travel from place to place like migrant workers across the remote west as they are contracted to herd cattle. The breathtaking cinematography evokes the gorgeous but harsh landscapes of western movies but this time with two very able cowgirls riding the range together with their herd dogs and doing tough, physical work, from roping cattle to breaking a colt to mending a fence. We get to know Hollyn and Colie as they talk; in one particularly moving moment, Colie tells Hollyn about the death of her rancher mother who suffered from a brain aneurism. In another, they encounter a sick cow but after stroking her neck and expressing concern they must continue with their corralling. Such tender but unsentimental moments are simply part of a way of life for these hired hands who approach work and life with a matter-of-fact acceptance that is at once admirable and heartbreaking.

Pam Grady:​ Two women, Hollyn and Colie, spend a season tending cattle on a remote Idaho range in Emelie Mahdavian’s meditative documentary. It is an isolated existence with only horses and dogs for companions but the women never complain even through summer snow squalls and other harsh conditions. At times, the film has the feeling of capturing a season out of time. In a way it is. Change is on the horizon and whatever happens, this is the last time Hollyn and Colie will experience a season or even their friendship in quite the same way. Luminously shot by cinematographer Derek Howard, Bitterbrush captures the sweep of the lonely landscape as Mahadavian meticulously focuses on the minutia of a cowpoke’s life – a challenging occupation but one with evident satisfaction to women called to it.

Jennifer Merin Bitterbrush is a quiet, contemplative, intimate and completely lovely character-driven documentary that chronicles the daily lives of two young cowgirls, Colie Moline and Hollyn Patterson, as they work their ranch in remote Idaho, drive a small herd of cattle across the vast open range, train their horses, cuddle their dogs and discuss all of their concerns and dreams. Filmmaker Emelie Mahdavian does a beautiful job of inviting us into their environment and presenting their ethos on screen.

Marilyn Ferdinand​ Home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play. In director Emelie Mahdavian’s documentary Bitterbrush, we do indeed see deer and antelope, as well as the stray cattle itinerant cowgirls Hollyn Patterson and Colie Moline are paid by area ranchers to round up and return to the fold. Beautifully photographed by Derek Howard and Alejandro Mejía in the wide-open spaces of Idaho, it’s easy to see why Hollyn and Colie love their work, where they enjoy the freedom to make their own decisions and work how they wish. At the same time, the work is hard, and the partnership of these women is about to change. Hollyn is engaged to be married and expecting a baby, and Colie wonders whether working for years just to be able to buy a house and run her own place is worth giving up on other possibilities for fulfillment. While Bitterbrush awes us with the skills and utter professionalism of these two women in a traditionally male profession, it also provides us with a way to contemplate our own place in the universe through the immediacy of their lives and their deep affinity with the animals and landscape that give them a reason to get up in the morning.

Sandie Angulo Chen:​ There’s a quiet beauty to Emelie Mahdavian’s documentary Bitterbrush, which chronicles two women range riders, Colie Moline and Hollyn Patterson, as they work on an Idaho mountain range. The gorgeous cinematography by Derek Howard and Alejandro Mejia lovingly captures the American West’s wide open spaces while also providing intimate shots of both women as they discuss personal details that range from professional complaints about the high cost of equipment driving out independent ranchers to cathartic stories about their beloved dead mother (Colie) or dog (Hollyn). The two women are close friends and co-workers, and the respect and trust they have for each other is inspiring. While most films about this topic focus on men, this is a refreshing reminder that women’s work extends to these traditionally male spaces

Liz Whittemore Director Emelie Mahdavian’s observational documentary Bitterbrush follows seasonal ranch hands Colie and Hollyn. While remaining hands-off, the film discovers genuine intimacy in wide-open spaces. Cinematographers Derek Howard and Alejandro Mejía capture thoughtful closeups showing the intricacies of Colie and Hollyn’s skills alongside stunning vista views that enchant even the most cynical city dweller. In an industry that feels dominated by men, Bitterbrush gives the female perspective on the unsustainable economics of the field, as well as the long-term impacts on personal relationships.


Title: Bitterbrush

Director: Emelie Mahdavian

Release Date: June 17, 2022

Running Time: 90 minutes

Language: English

Screenwriter: Documentary

Distribution Company: Magnolia Pictures

Official Website

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna

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Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).