(2021) Documentary (Bankside) Sharmaine Weed, Savannah Martinez, Brandon Weed, Charity Weed, Kashe Weed, Amari Bercier. Directed by Kim Bartley
Native Americans in the 21st century face many challenges, not the least of those they have faced since European colonizers came to steal their land from them. They seek to retain their cultural identity while fitting in to a modern world. They do that while living on reservations where economic opportunities are extremely limited, where most live in poverty and where many are plagued by alcohol and drug addiction.
For Sharmaine Weed, a Shoshone living on the massive Wind River reservation in Wyoming – “God’s country” as she puts it early on in the film – escape is through bareback horse racing. This isn’t the type of racing you see at Churchill Downs; it is extremely dangerous, as Sharmaine found out firsthand when her sister Charity rode for the first time, and suffered grievous injuries leaving her disabled. Sharmaine took a year off to help care for her sister, and her sister’s daughter.
She is back riding now, for the first time since her sister’s injury, and sporting a new girlfriend – Sharmaine is one of the few lesbians on the reservation – Savannah. The two are very much in love. But things at home are getting rough; her younger brother Kashe is turning abusive and Savannah wants Sharmaine to move to Denver. So Sharmaine gets a job out there and puts together enough money to buy a horse to run the summer racing season. Sharmaine looks at it as an opportunity for a fresh start – but things don’t run entirely to plan as they generally have a habit of doing.
Bartley spent three years shadowing Sharmaine and her patience pays off in a rich portrait of a family trying to stay afloat in difficult conditions and specifically of a young woman with fire, passion and determination who has her sights set on a goal, but is pragmatic enough to recognize that it isn’t worth sacrificing everything for. She is aware of the traps that reservation life offer – the despair, the alcoholism, the drug addiction – and she manages to avoid them, largely because of her dogged refusal to surrender to them. Her love for horse racing also carries her through, and she’s good enough at it that she can survive and thrive in that world.
Her relationship with Savannah is complicated; Savannah is six years younger and is still just barely old enough to drink legally. Her mind is still on things that Sharmaine has long since moved beyond (if they were ever important to her in the first place), and that puts a strain on their relationship. Savannah wants to enjoy life; Sharmaine wants to build something permanent. It’s not always the love that makes a relationship strong; sometimes it’s a matter of being on the same page in life. There’s nothing wrong with a young woman of 21 wanting to party, dye her hair, and in general be concerned more about less vital things. There is also nothing wrong with a young woman of 27 turning her eyes to the future. We’ve all been in relationships with people who wanted different things with their life. Maybe we loved those people with a passion, but a viable relationship just wasn’t possible.
Bartley does her own cinematography and it is often breathtaking. Horses leaving tracks in the Wyoming snow, drone shots of the endless prairie, the Weed family out hunting and fishing together. We quickly understand that the hunting isn’t done for sport; this is how the family puts food on the table. That they thank the animals they kill for their food for providing them with sustenance is a part of their cultural heritage.
We rarely get such an intimate glimpse at reservation life, and this one is a particularly thorough one. We can see the willingness to fight in Sharmaine’s eyes as she does her damnedest to make a life for herself that is free of drugs and alcohol. The movie could have used a little bit of work on the editing; some of the story progresses in a kind of an uneven manner. The film could have used a smoother flow to it and some of the transitions are a bit abrupt.
The movie is an Irish-American co-production, and is making its North American premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival in California today. Unfortunately, that particular film festival doesn’t have a streaming component, so you will likely have to wait until the movie makes an appearance at a festival near you, which it should do in the Fall or Spring. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up on one streaming service or another shortly after that. This is a strong movie about a person you can’t help but admire and I strongly recommend it.
REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot. Inspiring and intense.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story doesn’t flow as naturally as it might.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Wind River reservation, where Charmaine and her family live, is the seventh largest in the United States, and is home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Rider
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Learning to Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs and Englishmen