“Western Time” Film Review
[Editor’s Note: The film is now released. Watch it at the bottom of this article.]
The only place I can begin my review of Western Time is with this: Watch this film. Don’t miss it. Watch it once. See it again. Let its story percolate through you on your next trail run. Show it to your friends and then talk with them about it. Allow it to stretch your perspective about the capacity of our sport to heal and grow the people who do it. Fall in love with its star, Sally McRae, for how she uses the desolation of her past to make her a better runner, friend, mom, and woman today. Be grateful to filmmaker and producer Billy Yang for his creative gift.
No Muss, No Fuss
I am asked to watch many trail running films for potential review on this website. iRunFar chooses to review what we think are the best films–the ones with cinematography that makes you leap from your seat, a narrative you can’t possibly turn your back on, and/or an artistic treatment of the natural world through which we run. We review the trail running films we’re convinced will provide a tilt-shift of your and our trail community’s perspective.
If the current trail and ultrarunning world is a forest, then it’s pretty loud one. There is the squawking of PR agencies and marketers, athletes who have contractual obligations to promote their sponsors, and media in both the print and online venues. The Be Good Tanyas say, “The littlest birds sing the prettiest songs.” In a loud and squawk-y forest, Western Time is an understatement in every way you can imagine. This film is a tiny bird that sings an exquisite melody.
Billy is a new filmmaker and pretty much a one-man show, including the film’s budget. This means that, from a cinematographic standpoint and in comparison to some of the productions coming out of the highest echelon of trail running filmmaking right now, Western Time is shot simply. Billy plays with depth-of-field focus and uses some experimental framing, but lighting, lens play, point-of-view shifting, camera movement, filters, and some of the post-production magic that we’re seeing in highest-end films are largely absent. You will see, however, that Billy gets help from a friend with a couple drone shots to film Sally running on the Southern California coastline.
Also mostly absent is an artistic rendering of the natural world. We get a little scenery in the film’s beginning and end, when we see Sally training solo and with friends in the hills and mountains of SoCal. I do think Billy is making an effort in this direction with the use of a drone to film Sally running on the coastline. While you may find these couple shots, also in the film’s beginning and end, beautiful, the drone use precluded my true enjoyment of them. (I don’t care for drone use in natural spaces.)
What’s left, then, that makes this a film I’d recommend to all trail runners? The narrative. A story about a woman. A tale about a woman with dark stains in her past who is choosing to let them grow into bright lights for her modern life. Sally’s story.
I can’t tell you how happy I am to see a trail running film about a woman. What an absence of this storytelling there is in our genre of filmmaking! Sure, there are a couple films about women out there, and I know there are a few more in the works right now, but the vast majority of trail running films are dude-centric.
Let me be frank here. This is a film exclusively about Sally, her life, and the people who stand beside her as friends, trail running companions, and crew. Even so, dudes, I’m inclined to think there’s something for everyone here, regardless of your gender.
Side note, I’m also impressed that Billy, as a man, was able to tell Sally’s story so well. His creative veins apparently run with the ability to appropriately interpret a woman’s story. My kudos to Billy here.
Onto the details of Western Time’s storytelling…
The Narrative and Editorial Thoughts
The film opens at mile 62, Foresthill, of the 2014 Western States 100. Sally arrives to her crew in a world of right-knee pain. She is mentally eager, otherwise physically intact, but she tells her crew that her knee pain is overwhelming on the flats and downhills. Her crew tapes her knee and she heads out with her first pacer. With this, Billy sets up a cliffhanger.
Next the film flips back in time, to earlier in 2014 when Sally qualifies for Western States by placing second at the Sean O’Brien 50 Mile, a Montrail Ultra Cup race in which a potential three WS100 slots are awarded to the top male and female finishers. We hear that Sally is at a mental low point ahead of the race. She tells the camera that this is due to things going on in her personal life. We see Sally training in the mountains of SoCal, and hear her voice-over narration saying that climbing mountains is a life metaphor. That she has “lost a lot of people, started working at a young age, and grew up really quick as a kid,” and that this all has created figurative mountains to climb. We learn that just before Sean O’Brien, she becomes a part of the Nike Trail Team. Sally also talks of her friends who believe deeply in her. She ultimately decides that, because all these people demonstrate belief in her, she will believe in herself. Sally runs Sean O’Brien hard, as we see through some brief shots of her race, and finishes second. We see her celebrating with her friends at the finish, saying, “We’re going to Western States!”
The Sean O’Brien section is strong; you’ll enjoy it. I do think it could be stronger, however. We hear about Sally’s low point in only a very general sense, that it is the result of “things going on in her personal life.” The viewer never gets the whole story–by intention Billy tells me after I’ve viewed the film. He says that Sally didn’t want to include details because she was afraid it would negatively impact the rest of her life. This I totally respect, but the result of her guarded nature here is that most of Sally’s emotion is lost on me and perhaps other viewers, too. I can see she’s sad, but can’t really feel it because I don’t know what the problem is.
Next the film skips to pre-Western States shenanigans. We get short quips from her friends about the qualities in Sally that each of them value. They all mention her laugh, and then the film cuts from scene to scene of her laughing this huge, goofy, cackle of a laugh that makes the people around her bust up. This section is lighthearted, loving, and it shows the deep relationships Sally has with her crew.
Soon the race starts. We get shots of an early-morning hug between Sally and her crew, Sally looking pretty nervous on the starting line, and the actual start. We see some footage of Sally running through Duncan Canyon at mile 23 and Dusty Corners a mile 37. The narrative is transitory here, basically getting us from point A–where Sally begins the race ready to rock and roll–to point B–Michigan Bluff at mile 55 where we learn that Sally’s knee has “blown out,” that she’s way off pace, and in 17th place for the women.
After we get the full scoop on Sally’s injury at Michigan Bluff and again at Foresthill, we learn that she’s re-set her goal to sub-24 hours. She gets taped up and tiger balm-ed. When she heads back out, her mood seems frustrated, determined, but still vaguely positive. As she leaves Michigan Bluff, she hikes up the trail saying, “I’m definitely not dropping. I don’t care how painful this is. We are finishing.”
The scene cuts to a collage of old photos and grainy film, with voice-over narration by Sally. She tells us that when things get tough for her, she conjures a memory from February, 1996, the last high-school soccer game that her mother attended. Sally says, “It was about three months before my mom died. She was not supposed to be out of the house. It was raining. She had cancer.” Sally tells us that her mom was pale, wearing a wig, and looked weak. But she also says that her mom looked strong, in her determination to see one more of Sally’s soccer matches. That day, Sally says, her mom had “strength through pain” and that’s what she tries to emulate in difficult situations.
This scene is emotionally ferocious. It’s simply shot, the old images and film, the voice-over narration, occasional cuts to Sally talking to the camera. But there’s just no need for cinematographic complexity because the narrative sings. Actually, it sorrows, but it does so in an open, vivid way that allows the viewer to climb onto the soccer field with the younger-person version of her. Be ready to emotionally connect with Sally here.
The film cuts back to the race, to Green Gate at mile 78. Through shaky, sometimes blurry, and chaotic footage, we see that Sally rolls into the aid station an hour earlier than her crew expects her, now in 11th place. It seems her crew is stunned; they are not the well-oiled machine that they were at Michigan Bluff and Foresthill. Sally is lovingly impatient with them in asking for her bottle to be refilled. Amidst her requests and the crew’s fumbling, we hear her almost whisper, “Ten.” Then she says it again, more impatiently now. “Ten! Ten!” she says as she runs into the night on her quest to finish in the top-10 women, a revered placing at Western States that affords an invitation to race again the following year. Her pacer, David Daley, breaks down after she leaves, saying, “She ran so hard. She’s going to do it.”
Narrative crescendo building, the film now skips to more old video of Sally at age seven, running her first race. We see the race unfold with narration by her mom. We see Sally run, hear her mom shout, “Go Sally! You can do it!” As Sally’s one-kilometer, kid-hood race continues, Western Time cuts to scenes of Sally running through Highway 49 at mile 93 and Robie Point at mile 99, looking strong. Then we see Sally finish her first race, winning. The film cuts to Sally’s modern Western States finish, in 10th place. And finally, the film cuts back to Sally trying to catch her breath as a seven year old having pushed to her limit, her mom completely breathless herself, proud of her daughter, saying, “That’s my Sally.”
There is little need to editorialize this section of the film except to say that it’s masterful. Brilliant editing and storytelling. Heart aching, heart lifting. Soul shaping for everyone inside Sally’s story, and so long as you’re a human being with the capability of feeling emotion, for you, too. It is a lost cause to make it through this scene with dry eyes or a closed heart.
There’s a bit more to the film, a few minutes of postscript-ish cuts from the Western States finish line and awards ceremony, and of Sally running with friends back in SoCal and reflecting on her Western States journey. There’s a fantastic line from John Trent, the President of the Western States Board, at the awards ceremony as he speaks to finishers: “What you all did yesterday added to the wonderful narrative that we call Western States.” True, so true. And to paraphrase John’s statement, Western Time, Billy, and Sally have added to the collective body of work that is our community. Their tune is a quiet one, but if you listen close, you, too, will learn and grow.