It would be easy to compare Ocean of Grass: Life on a Nebraska Sandhills Ranch to Andrea Arnold's feature doc Cow, a similarly immersive and experiential film with a willingness to simply linger on its remarkable and mesmerizing locale.
The two films are, however, quite different beginning with director George Joutras's focus on the farmers themselves and including Joutras's far less politicized approach to capturing life for the individuals who choose this sparse, rugged lifestyle.
Almost entirely a one-man production show, Ocean of Grass was filled by Joutras over the course of 48 months with Joutras himself serving as director, cinematographer, editor, marketing rep, and all-around designer for the film. The result is a feature documentary that feels as personal as it is. As is evident from its title, Ocean of Grass is set within the Nebraska Sandhills region, a region of mixed-grass prairie on grass-stabilized sand dunes in north-central Nebraska that encompasses approximately 1/4 of the state of Nebraska. In 1984, the dunes were designated a National Natural Landmark.
It is within this region that Joutras discovered the McGinn Ranch, a 3rd and 4th generation ranch that has been operating continuously since the late 19th century in an area so rural that even the local schools often play eight-man football because their simply aren't enough kids to field a full football team.
It is clear that Joutras, a first-time filmmaker, has taught himself much along the way as the film's patient, observational storytelling embraces its locale and takes its time getting to know the McGinn family and the six primary family members who continue to care for this land and the animals on it that include cattle, horses, dogs, and probably a few things I missed along the way because I was in an almost meditative state.
Tom Larson's original music for the film is quiet and reverent, the score complementing the story and wrapping itself around these people. It feels a bit old school like an old John Wayne movie.
Ocean of Grass takes place over the course of a year in the life of the farm, the seasons unfolding like Nebraska seasons unfold with equally parts majesty and potential chaos. Truthfully, there's not much in the way of chaos to be found here as Ocean of Grass instead simply allows us to peacefully coexist with all that unfolds here. Joutras doesn't force drama nor does he look for unnecessary storylines. Sure, we get the farmer with a "painting problem." However, this isn't so much a story as simply getting to know these people and how they live in this rugged yet wondrous area. Laron McGinn, one of the McGinn kin, has a degree from University of Arizona in Graphic Design and Illustration and brings that gift to life even as he returned to live and work on the farm.
Ocean of Grass spent 18 months on an indie theatrical run through Midwest theaters, a remarkable achievement considering the film was unsponsored and not studio-driven other than its now streaming release via Indie Rights.
If you're looking for a politicized view on farming or animals, look elsewhere. Ocean of Grass is a film that immerses us in the ranch life and quietly brings respect and dignity to those who choose this vital, necessary way of American life. With patience and commitment, George Joutras has crafted a mesmerizing, immersive, and compassionate documentary about American ranch life and the ranchers who devote themselves to this incredible way of life. Sometimes, the best storytelling is about the experience rather than the destination and this is very much the case with Ocean of Grass.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic