If you find the sound of bleating sheep even mildly annoying or the sight of them reminds you of the ones you count to put you to sleep, the new documentary Sweetgrass may not be your best choice. The echo of always-noisy ovine carries through the entirety of Sweetgrass, a film about a migration of thousands of sheep across Montana. At once a nature documentary akin to something like Winged Migration or Planet Earth and also an ode to a way of life that’s clearly disappearing, Sweetgrass is a sometimes-mesmerizing and sometimes-dull piece of filmmaking that I admired for its natural beauty and peek into a way of life that most of us can’t possibly understand but that fell a little flat as entertainment. Sweetgrass is interesting without ever being as fascinating as I hoped it would be. It’s ultimately mesmerizing enough to recommend but even a film about life on the plains can be a tough journey.
Sweetgrass is such a natural, unforced documentary that you can practically smell the sheep. It’s about a group of herders who take months transferring thousands of sheep up and down the Montana Beartooth Mountains on their last drive in 2003 (something not learned until the very end of the film). These men have remarkably makeshift tents and camping equipment that looks like it was passed down from the 1800s, have clearly spent more time on horseback than behind the wheel of a car, and wear cowboy hats and tattered clothes as if they’re Deadwood extras and yet they also sometimes use push-to-talk technology to coordinate the herd. At another point, a herder complains about his condition, the “awnery” sheep, and his lazy dog to his mother via cell phone from the top of a mountain. The blend of a bit of modern technology along with the “sheep dog and whistling” routine that makes up nearly every day of the drive is fascinating. Documentarians Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor take a completely unobtrusive approach, not offering narration or even too many interviews with the men. They’re sometimes caught in conversation about what they’re doing, but that seems almost incidental to the directors’ attempt merely to capture a one-of-a-kind experience; a laborious journey that makes your whining about your commute to work even more annoying.
With no score, narration, and very few interviews, the soundtrack of Sweetgrass is made up almost entirely of natural sound – sheep noises, me whistling, dogs barking, wind, etc. And the journey’s more treacherous and unusual than you might first expect. At one point, thousands of sheep merely stop in the forest and the group can’t figure out why they’re stuck. It’s sheep gridlock. At another, one of the few remaining herders (they seem to start with many and leave only a couple by the end as life probably pulls others away) basically loses his mind, spewing epithets at the sheep.
Naturally, Sweetgrass is a little slow. And while the film does occasionally capture the beauty of nature, the low-budget approach makes one wish that a few more HD cameras could have been included on the journey to more majestically chronicle it. The fact is that a film that features little more than “Baaaaaaa” for over an hour-and-a-half can be a tough sell to most audiences. Nature lovers and those interested in an old west way of life that’s clearly disappearing might be more drawn to the story of Sweetgrass than others but even viewers caught unaware of just how natural this documentary is could easily find themselves mesmerized by its unique charms.
Rating: THREE BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: June 25th, 2010
Directors: Ilisa Barbash & Lucien Castaing-Taylor