‘Pure Grit’ an Athena Film Festival Review
Pure Grit, written and directed by Kim Bartley focuses on the relationship between Sharmaine Weed and Savannah Martinez who “love each other,” but cannot “live with each other.” It is also about Sharmaine’s definition of herself as a winning bareback horse racer. Bareback horse racing is one of the most dangerous sports on the planet.
Bartley’s interest in these two indigenous women and their relationship reveals the concern and love they have for each other. Indeed, Savannah joins Sharmaine around the time that Sharmaine takes a year off her winning streak bareback riding to care for her sister who was severely injured following a catastrophic accident during a horse race. The love of the entire family to become champion bareback riders is in their bones. It is an inherent love bred in their DNA. Part of the love includes the knowledge of the risk that they take riding bareback. Sharmaine’s sister took the risk and badly injured herself.
So in a matter-of-fact way Sharmaine describes the accident and her sister’s paralysis on one side of her body. With Savannah, Sharmaine takes care of her sister’s children and with the help and support of other family, they make a life for each other. The sister must go through a lengthy rehabilitation process. Her paralysis impacts her ability to ride. But Sharmaine has the goal for her sister to become healed enough so she can get up on a horse again without fear.
Because Sharmaine takes a year off from racing to take care of her sister, she has become rusty and needs to practice racing again. She is in a position of greater danger than ever because she hasn’t ridden bareback on a horse and has been redirected helping her sister and smoothing over her relationship with Savannah. When she realizes the racing championships are coming in months, Sharmaine pushes herself to get ready and refocuses. But first she must earn money to purchase the right horse to help her return to her greatness as a winner.
Bartley uses her camera from the perspective of a friend and engages Sharmaine’s family members comfortably. She informally interviews her mother and her younger brother Kashe and her older brother Brandon. With abundant voice overs and portraits of the family’s activities, we learn about their lives. Additionally, each family member shares their impressions of their lives, the reservation and their commitment to bareback horse racing.
Brandon has taught Sharmaine a lot of what she knows and gives her pointers about getting back into her riding. Kashe has returned, having been caught up with friends in drugs and alcohol. Because family members have established a comfortable and trusting relationship with Bartley, the film approaches an ethnography. We become a part of the setting and identify with the family and enjoy learning about them.
Though Savannah loves Wyoming Wind River Reservation where it is beautiful and peaceful, all is not heavenly there and the stresses of daily living encumber them. Thus, both women decide to go to Denver, Colorado where Savannah lives. On the one hand, the fighting atmosphere on the Reservation becomes toxic, but they will still be together in Denver. However, there, they calculate the change of scene will improve their spirits. Sharmaine will more easily find a job since there are no jobs on the reservation. With the money she earns, she will buy a horse to use in the upcoming races.
Denver brings freedom and opportunity. However, there are many distractions and these become a strain on their fledgling relationship. When racing season starts up, Sharmaine and Savannah hit the road and embrace the risks. With a new horse from her city earnings, Sharmaine sees the potential for a fresh start. She is determined to be a champion and she practices hard and wins a few preliminary races. However, she emotionally feels she is not prepared because in order to make up for a year off her racing, she must train and there never seems to be enough time.
Furthermore, Savannah is insecure about Sharmaine’s love for her. There is an age difference and though Sharmaine feels she is expressive enough, Savannah is needy. She requires constant reassurance about Sharmaine’s feelings. The strain between them grows, perhaps driven by Sharmaine’s overriding concern that the training with the new horse she purchases isn’t yielding the results she wants.
Kim Bartley presents these individuals in all their humanity and their desires. As a result they become family and we are devastated when Sharmaine, who tries her best to win the race for the first time, after a year, doesn’t make it. Additionally, the once close Sharmaine and Savannah split. They do agree that they love each other but fight too much to live with each other happily.
Bartley reveals that life goes on for them. And the title indicates that life isn’t always about winning, it isn’t always about getting along with someone you love. And sometimes, family leaves and there is nothing that can be done. These themes of struggle and the grit it takes to continue in spite of pain and loss are the life lessons that Bartley highlights in this beautifully shot, well edited film that has no beginning or ending. We are assured, like this family, the struggle in life goes on. And we are glad to be a part of it because to be a part of it is to be alive to take risks.
To see this fascinating film, look for it on VOD channels or check IMBD for updates.