A glacially paced drama, but with authentic riding scenes. I watched it and you might want to.
Josiah Burdick’s 2020 Useless sounds like your typical “horses helped me through tragedy” tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme… beauty and the…
Sorry, back to the movie. Let’s break it down in this (mostly) spoiler-free review.
“When a girl is given a horse that has been deemed useless, she finds purpose in a world that’s lost its shine. With a renewed hope in life since losing her mom, she clings to the one thing she still has: barrel racing.”
The movie opens at a barrel race with our protagonist, Jessie, in the stands watching the competitors. Cut to a scene with her loading a very cute buckskin in a trailer and we discover she was there cheering for her mom. Everything seems idyllic and wonderful, but the background music is about as upbeat as Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven,’ so I’m assuming it’s not going to stay that way.
So, yeah, Mom dies and Jessie moves in with her aunt and uncle in the mountains. The twist of the knife comes when she finds out they don’t own any horses. Cue the chat where her aunt tries to convince Jessie to go into nursing instead of becoming a professional barrel racer and everything looks pretty bleak.
After finding a “$90,000 horse” on the side of the road and leading it home, Jessie snags a job at the local hunter jumper stable, which is helpful, because by this point we’ve learned that her aunt and uncle aren’t doing well financially.
Meanwhile, Jessie meets a new friend at school. Her name is Kenzie and her opening statement is that she likes bugs. You just know she’s going to grow up to be the cool chic/medical examiner on a crime show one day. I love her.
Next, her well-meaning uncle takes a despondent Jessie to the rodeo, which seems like the absolutely worst idea considering Jessie is dealing with the loss of her mom who, you know, died on her way to a rodeo. When the plan doesn’t work, he decides to up his game and buy a horse. His wife isn’t thrilled.
But the uncle wins and the wheel of destiny is set into motion when he manages to find a registered, cutting-bred, blue roan gelding between the ages of eight and 12 that’s already broke to saddle and just needs a little finishing … for $500. His name is Lucky.
I’d roll my eyes, but my momma taught me better.
We’re treated to the tiniest of training montages and then we’re off to the rodeo.
Unfortunately, just when you think this movie is about to take a turn away from the miserable, Jessie’s uncle collapses on the side of the road and doctors find a blood clot in his brain. He survives, but the already struggling family is left reeling from crippling medical debt. #murica
Are we gearing up for a big win that not only saves the ranch and repays the family debt, but also solidifies the magical bond between Jessie and Lucky? You’ll just have to watch and see!
This movie had all the right ingredients: a girl with a tragic backstory, a ranch in financial trouble and a down-on-his-luck horse. It’s a story that’s been told before, but much like my beloved “fake fiancé turns into real soulmate” Christmas tropes … I’ll watch this kind of thing over and over again.
Unfortunately, despite that recipe for success, this movie is a flop. The pacing is too slow, the soundtrack makes elevator music seem scintillating and the acting comes across as heavily sedated rather than broken-hearted. The side plot trying to force 17-year-old Jessie to choose between a date rapist cowboy and a college-aged friend of the family was also very cringe-worthy. I’m not sure why the creators felt a love triangle was necessary, but it really wasn’t.
Horse girls will always choose the horse anyway. Fact.
That being said, the riding scenes are authentic. There are no weird fake whinnies for dramatic effect and the tack and equipment are appropriate for chasing the cans. Brooke Wilson, who played Jessie, won the title of 2017 Montana High School Rodeo Association Champion Barrel Racer in her junior year of high school.
The other star of the movie is Montana itself. Useless was filmed in the absolutely gorgeous setting of Flathead County on a $25,000 budget with a five person crew. Most of the actors were locals that worked for free and the rodeos were filmed live.
Director Josiah Burdick told the Flathead Beacon, “This is a local movie. It celebrates Montana. It celebrates our way of life.”
I give Useless 1.5 out of 4 Golden Horseshoes.
Amanda Uechi Ronan is an author, equestrian and wannabe race car driver. Follow her on Instagram @uechironan.