Naemi Dehde hits the home stretch on Kim Bartley’s Pure Grit,  thrilling tale of extreme bareback horse racing, and an intimate love story.

In its critical reception, Kim Bartley’s latest documentary piece Pure Grit (2021) is frequently described as a love story. Bartley spent three years following Sharmaine Weed’s life with her family and girlfriend, Savannah, on the Wind River reservation in Wyoming. While the romantic subplot between Sharmaine and Savannah is central to the flow of the story, it is only a single thread of the documentary’s narratological fabric. Its thematic address transcends romance and tells a tale of hope, dreaming, and determination, encompassed by the adrenaline-rush of extreme bareback horse racing. 

After taking a one-year break to support her sister who was paralysed by an accident on the track, Sharmaine wants to get back on a horse. Regardless of the danger and deadliness of the sport, the young Native American woman is determined to restore her former glory as a bareback horse racing champion. As much as the documentary captures the intensity of being a bareback horse racer, it also skilfully explores the peaks and valleys of Sharmaine’s life, her failures and successes. It does not shy away from addressing her past trauma and personal tragedies without dwelling on them. Instead, the narrative spotlights Sharmaine and her family’s passion for extreme bareback horse racing and focuses on a woman pursuing an old dream with new passion in spite of the obstacles life throws her way. 

Much of the documentary’s allure derives from its compelling protagonist and strong visuality. Through juxtaposing images of the industrial greyness of Denver and awe-inspiring wide-shots of the Wyoming wilderness, Pure Grit opens up a dialogue between nature and urban landscapes. Mesmerising images of snow-capped mountains evoke Romantic notions of the sublime that highlight the alienating effects of city life. The documentary’s presentation of differing spatial configurations is accompanied by a mostly instrumental soundtrack. Whether the music’s intensity and volume are enjoyable or not, lies in the ear of the beholder. Soundtrack certainly is a crucial tool for filmmakers to stir audiences’ emotions. In Pure Grit, it occasionally comes into close proximity of being too overpowering. 

Aside from the soundtrack, the documentary’s narrative offers numerous glimpses at different aspects of Sharmaine’s life. It mostly revolves around extreme bareback horse racing, but also addresses a wide range of other themes. A downside of this complexity is that the film merely scratches the surface of some subjects that could have been worthwhile exploring. Despite this slight sense of something missing, Pure Grit remains an overall compelling piece with a protagonist who audiences want to cheer on at the racetracks. Viewers embark on a journey with Sharmaine that starts out as a dream of winning again and then turns out to be about much more.

Pure Grit is in cinemas from 30th September 2022.


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