Ten-year-old Texan Marlie McDonald has retired from mutton busting, having outgrown the sport. But in her time she could outride the best of them.
Marlie’s exploits in the arena are documented in the short film Just Hold On, especially her gold buckle-winning effort at RodeoHouston in 2018. Just six years old then, McDonald climbed aboard a sheep, grabbed a couple fistfuls of wool and when the gate opened and the critter bolted, she kept her grip for 90 feet, earning a perfect score.
“All the way to the wall!” hollered an excited announcer. “She’s done it!”
“I think she likes challenges,” observes her cowboy-hatted grandpa, leaning on a gnarled wooden cane. “And she has a temperament that makes her want to do what she wants to do and when she wants to do it, and that’s okay. We’re proud of her.”
With her curly hair, Marlie could be a red-haired ringer for Shirley Temple. She charmed the rodeo crowd with her victory and post-race interview where she declared, “I’ve been practicing on my dad.” By that, she meant she prepared for races by jumping on her father’s back as he obligingly got on all fours in the yard.
As the rodeo audience listened, the interviewer asked Marlie what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“A spy,” she replied without hesitation, explaining the profession appealed to her because it’s “where you get to fight for the world [against] the bad guys, where you get to fight them.”
The film, clocking in at just 7 minutes, has been on a festival run since premiering at SXSW in 2020, where it won the Texas Shorts category. It played at the recent HollyShorts Film Festival, and previously screened at Palm Springs International ShortFest, where it was nominated as Best Documentary Short.
Viewers come to realize the title of the film applies not simply to mutton busting. Marlie McDonald has had to hold on her whole life. She was diagnosed in utero with brain cancer and underwent surgery just four days after she was born. She spent the first two years of her life undergoing chemotherapy and, thankfully, is now in long-term survivor care.
“We used to always tell her to hold on,” Marlie’s mother Nathalie recalls in the film. Marlie’s father Kevin says, “She’s a survivor and a fighter.”
Zehtabchi, Davis and producer Mehrdad Sarlak shot with the McDonalds in several locations, including the family home and at an additional rodeo competition in which Marlie took part. The filmmakers told the Houston Chronicle in 2020 that they became intrigued about mutton busting when they heard about it on social media and that led to them seeing the video of Marlie’s winning ride at RodeoHouston. But initially they were unaware of the deeper dimensions to the youngster’s experience.
“We had no idea there was more to her story,” Zehtabchi told the paper. “It is worth sharing. She is remarkable.”
Sarlak represented the filmmaking team at the HollyShorts Festival screening. At a Q&A after the shorts program that included Just Hold On, he gave a shout out on stage to Zehtabchi and Davis, calling them “my dear, dear friends.” He noted, “They won an Academy Award a couple of years ago for Period. End of Sentence… After their Academy run they called me and said, ‘Hey, we have this amazing story about this amazing little girl, Marlie McDonald, and would you like to produce it?’ I said, absolutely.”
During the Q&A, Sarlak got Marlie’s mom Nathalie on the phone so she could address the HollyShorts audience. She explained that Marlie had retired for the evening, saying, “It’s already past her bedtime in Texas.”
McDonald added, “I just want to say a huge thank you to HollyShorts for selecting our film and we’re so honored that Just Hold On has been a part of this festival. We’re very sad that we can’t be there in person. But Mehrdad, Rayka and Sam really captured the essence of Marlie’s journey, and I hope you’ve been inspired by her courage and determination to just hold on through all of life’s challenges.”
Mutton busting competitors generally run between the ages of 5 and 7 and can’t exceed 55 lbs., so Marlie has moved on from that. She’s also contemplating different career paths apart from espionage.
“I’d like to be a spy and fight for the world but my cover has been blown,” she told the Houston Chronicle. “Maybe I will be a singer or a professional basketball player instead.”
You can watch Just Hold On by clicking on this link.