One of the great joys of moviegoing is to walk into a theater with no knowledge or expectation of what you are about to be see, only to be transported and delighted.
“The Eagle Huntress” is just such an experience. And although humans get top billing, the eagles are true co-stars, in close-ups of their fiercely beautiful heads and in their soaring panoramic traverse of sky and mountain.
With extraordinary cinematography, superb production values and winning real-life characters, this is a marvelous story about a cherubic 13-year-old girl who lives in a nomadic family on the steppes of Mongolia. Aisholpan wants to continue the family tradition of eagle hunting. (Eagle hunters do not hunt eagles; they train eagles to hunt foxes.)
Her father, Nurgaiv, supports her dream, even though it is all but unheard of for girls to hunt with eagles. "In my mind, girls and boys are equal," he says, a true progressive of the steppes.
This film is something of a hybrid of a documentary/feature film. Events are obviously staged for the camera even if in real time, not caught as historic footage or in anonymous "hidden camera" style. It is almost too slick, given the production pedigree of Sundance funding, executive producer Morgan Spurlock and narration by Daisy Ridley ("Star Wars").
Nevertheless, there is a sense of purity and innocence in the film, both in the context of Mongolian culture, the juxtaposition of the modern and traditional, and especially in the radiant face of our young heroine.
Aisholpan, a very good student who hopes to become a doctor, attends boarding school during the week, taking care of her younger sister and brother there and returning home on the weekend to pursue her eagle hunting training. There are charming vignettes of kids being kids, and families being families, a universal humanity.
Humor comes courtesy of a scowling Mongolian chorus of elders, ensconced in the Old Ways: "Girls are meant to stay home and make tea!" Aisholpan and her father are blissfully undeterred.
Once she is ready, her father takes Aisholpan up into the mountains to claim an eaglet of her own to train. The smile rarely leaves her face even as she rappels down the side of a cliff, wraps the eaglet in a blanket and climbs back up, her worried father shouting instructions and encouragement. Back safe, he says “You are awesome!" taking the words right out of our mouths.
Aisholpan and Nurgaiv ride horses, climb mountains, hunt foxes — all with one hand, since they each have 15-pound eagles perched on the other. After months of training and bonding, she takes her eagle to the festival to compete in a skills test. There is grudging admiration, but even then she is not considered a true eagle hunter until her eagle catches a fox in the winter--the ultimate test.
“The Eagle Huntress” works on many levels: as a family drama, adventure, nature documentary and classic “root for the underdog” sports movie. There is not a great deal of suspense, other than the festival competition and the hunt - hoping the horses don’t fall off cliffs or through snow banks. But somehow the whole thing works.
Yes, there are subtitles. But because of the simple, direct dialogue, even middle schoolers should be able to read the captions. The raw violence of the hunt may be off-putting for younger children but it is comparable to the content in the Disney nature films.
Looking for an inspirational dose of female empowerment? This is a terrific movie for families, but especially for fathers and daughters. The glass ceiling may still be intact but the sky has been pierced by the eagle huntress.
"The Eagle Huntress"
3.5 stars (out of four)
Director: Otto Bell
Running time: 87 minutes
The lowdown: Documentary/family adventure about the first female in 12 generations of her family to become an eagle hunter.