Movie review: 'Sweetgrass' a look at disappearing part of Americana

Al Alexander

In “Sweetgrass,” the talk is sheep. And normally, I’d say baa humbug to the thought of sitting down with lambs for 90 minutes.

But any apprehension quickly abates under the power of a documentary that’s as beautiful as it is informative in its tribute to the herders who’ve driven sheep up and down Montana’s majestic mountainsides for generations.

It unfolds daringly, too, without title cards, interviews or narration. It’s just ewe and the sheep traveling 75 grueling miles over roads, streams and untamed terrain with only the critters’ bleating to be heard.

And, thanks to the exquisite cinematography by Harvard professors Ilisa Barbash and Lucein Castaing-Taylor, you feel like you’re right in the center of it, seeing what the shepherds see and feeling what they feel, as their patience and sanity are put to the test.

Not only do Barbash and Castaing-Taylor shoot from angles that are as varied as they are inventive, they also aren’t averse to letting their camera linger on gorgeous vistas of fog-cloaked mountains, where the tranquility is broken only by the hundreds of sheep flowing over them like a white, woolen river.

It’s simply breathtaking, made more so by the knowledge that such sights are becoming extinct, as changes in federal laws no longer allow sheep ranchers to drive their flocks onto public lands during the summer grazing season.

Sadly, the changes forced our hosts, the Allested family of Big Timber, Mont., out of business, making what transpires all the more meaningful because it is the final drive the family made up the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains.

You feel their loss, and society’s loss as well, as yet another piece of Americana bites the dust in the name of progress. That’s not to say some of the Allesteds’ hands are sorry to see it go. One of them can be overheard complaining vigorously about the long days, rugged terrain and, of course, the relentless bleating. It’s disconcerting enough listening to it for 90 minutes, so imagine being subjected to it 24/7 for weeks on end.

No wonder a couple of the shepherds get a little … shall I say … eccentric. One guy even calls home to his mother when he begins reaching his breaking point.

Crazy or not, they’re an awesome crew of hardy, dedicated men and women who genuinely care about their flock, which they dutifully protect from the terrain and a host of nasty predators.

That’s especially true of hired hands John Ahern and Pat Connolly, the two men left to watch over the flock during the grazing season. They are the closest thing to being the stars of the picture ... well, except for the sheep, which, for the most part, are endearing. Especially the lambs, whom we watch emerging from the womb and growing big enough to run with the flock.

Kids will love them, but be sure to cover their delicate ears late in the game, when a completely flustered Pat lets loose with a four-letter-laced tirade colorfully verbalizing his annoyance over attempts to steer sheep where they don’t want to go.

The producers of “Sweetgrass” face a similar obstacle in trying to herd reluctant people into theaters. But if they’re smart, folks will follow like ... well ... sheep.

Patriot Ledger writer Al Alexander may be reached

SWEETGRASS (Unrated) A documentary by  Ilisa Barbash and Lucein Castaing-Taylor. 3 stars out of 4.