The Movie Waffler Tribeca Film Festival 2024 Review - BITTERROOT | The Movie Waffler

Tribeca Film Festival 2024 Review - BITTERROOT

Bitterroot review
Recovering from a failed marriage, a middle-aged man cares for his ailing mother in rural Montana.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Vera Brunner-Sung

Starring: Wa Yang, Qu Kue, April Charlo, Gia Vang

That bittersweet period after a breakup of a once seemingly locked in relationship has its own special ennui. A form of grieving wherein one steps outside a life that, up until recently, was all you knew; if existence is a drama then the central imperative, the reason for keeping going, has been suddenly replaced with a new and unwelcome disequilibrium. Can you be bothered to resolve it? It seems like so much hard work, so much effort to start again. And for what? Just so you can again experience this heartache later down the line? Again this weightlessness in the absence of gravity, where, emancipated from the rest of the world, it feels like you could do anything, yet you don't want to because nothing really matters? Jog on.

Bitterroot review

This is the situation in which Hmong-American Lue (Wa Yang) finds himself in Vera Brunner-Sung's superbly crafted Bitterroot. He spends his evenings at a karaoke bar, straight faced intoning Paul Young's 'Everytime You Go Away', and his days as a janitor. That is until he is laid off. It never rains, but it pours. Except, actually, it doesn't even do that in Bitteroot's rocky mise-en-scene. The still heat of northwest America is a tangibly oppressive aspect of this slow burn character study, with Brunner-Sung placing Lue against a vast rural Montana landscape, the huge existential mountains and encroaching forest fires visually expressive of his lonely, yet somehow urgent, situation.

Bitterroot review

Lue, understandably, wants to be left alone. He wanders the woods, and goes fishing, occasionally shooting the shit with his mates in the Hmong community: Brunner-Sung communicates Lue via archetypal masculine contexts, emphasising his own loss of male agency. Like a ghost he haunts his own life, yet no man is an island, and Lue reluctantly has to engage with his family and their farm. His mother is ailing, and, in her twilight years, urges her son to find another partner (because it is that easy, mum) while his sister's husband is overriding the running of the alfalfa rows. Things intensify when Lue's mother falls critically ill, and Lue must face up to the sort of emotions he has been trying to avoid in the interim.

Bitterroot review

What impresses most profoundly about Bitterroot is the film's pristine confidence. There is no rush here, but trust in the narrative and the cast. Ki Jin Kim's photography of the surrounding nature is pensive but also cathartic; a perceptively consuming testament that life, as ever, keeps moving. The character interactions are devastatingly free of histrionics, with Brunner-Sung's direction gleaning so much from even the smallest of gestures from her very good cast. Could there be hope for Lue in the form of an attractive neighbour who lives in a nearby trailer? Her dog barking keeps him awake at night, so perhaps not the best of starts. But this is a neat correlation of the fallacy of Lue's outlook, where although he may try to be isolated, to divorce himself from the world and all attendant emotion, life will nonetheless find him again.

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