All Creatures Great and Small: The Rowdy Girl Documentary

Renee sits with a cow in Rowdy Girl.

A documentary is only as good as its subject. Does Rowdy Girl live up to the promise of telling the story of two farmers trying to make the world a better place?

Rowdy Girl

The Sonnen's pet turkey gobbling things up in Rowdy Girl.

Documentaries are the unsung heroes of the film world. They inform, entertain, and sometimes they effectuate real change. Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988) resulted in freeing Randall Adams who was falsely convicted of murder in 1977. The Oscar winning documentary The Cove (2009) shined a light on Japan’s abusive and often illegal fishing industry. Blackfish (2013) spelled a disastrous loss of income for Sea World and ultimately lead to a change in their practice of capturing and caging animals, most notable the Killer Whale. Since the release of the documentary, Sea World has been actively trying to change their brand image. Documentaries can indeed be powerful tools for change.

Texas Ranchers

A giant cow
As we say in these parts “That’s a big ol’ cow.”

What makes two Texas cattle ranchers move from raising and killing animals to becoming a plant based only farm? This is the question Rowdy Girl seeks to answer at the beginning of the documentary. It’s answered quickly and often thought out the film much to the detriment of the rest of the documentary.


Renee King-Sonnen is very open about her past. She’s a recovering alcoholic and drug abuser who, after becoming sober, re-married her ex-husband Tommy. Tommy had a ranch whose main purpose was to breed cows, hogs, and chickens so they could be sold at market to ultimately end up on our dinner plates.

Tommy would have kept sending animals to be sold if Renee didn’t have a change of heart about killing the same animals she was becoming attached to. More than once Renee tells people she would go down to the pasture and “bond” with the cows. She spent so much time with the cows that she claims she could understand their language to the point where they told her their names. She somewhat proudly tells visitors that she called her husband a murderer.

Documentarian and the Documentary

The documentarian, Jason Goldman, is not present. He simply points his camera, records, and lets the people do what they do. Most documentarians would prefer to remain outside the documentary. Werner Herzog is a notable exception. Herzog almost always narrates his documentaries and even puts himself in the center. A little more direction on Goldman’s part may have resulted in a better documentary.

A framer brushes down his horse in Rowdy Girl.

Renee is the driving force of the documentary. Tommy, the other farmers who are transitioning their farms from animal to planted based through the Sonnen’s advocacy program, and the volunteers who have participated in the documentary are merely background draping for Renee. As soon as a one of the farmers in the documentary starts to speak, Renee cuts them off. Renee needs to be the center of attention. We never really learn the why or the what behind the farmers’ decisions to go plant based.

From Chickens to Mushrooms

Only one other rancher couple is focused on as they turn their chicken farm with kill barns into a mushroom farm. Their reasoning is simple enough, they got tired of the whole process of raising chickens from chick to adult in a matter of days, shoved into to spaces where they were practically walking over each other, only to be scooped up and taken to slaughter. The reborn mushroom farmer says that it’s much nicer to pick mushrooms than to pick up a dead chicken that was trampled on and then eaten by other chickens.

From killing chickens to growing mushrooms, a farmer raises up his new crop.

A Documentary Is As Only Good As Its Subject

Renee alone doesn’t make a convincing argument as to why you or me should stop eating meat. Hearing the stories of other farmers in the advocacy program would have left more of an impact than only hearing from Renee. Rowdy Girl, unlike documentaries such as Food, Inc, Gunda (2020), or Cow (2021), will not make you change the way you look at food and it will not change how you look at the meat packing industry as a whole. However, changing the audience’s mind one way or the other is not the intent of Rowdy Girl.

Preparing to grow as a mushroom farmer.

So what is the purpose of Rowdy Girl? Is the intent of Rowdy Girl merely to shine a light on Renee and Tommy’s advocacy program? Is it the story of how one woman went vegan and convinced her rancher husband to quit killing animals? It could have been both, but fails at answering either question. What we get are too many scenes of Renee singing to the cows and sitting in pastures with the other animals. It feels like Renee is putting a show on for the cameras.


What we do end up with are a series of well lighted and candid shots of farm animals, both big and small. The documentary starts on a close up of the Sonnen’s domesticated turkey and ends on a close up of a brown cow. If someone can look into the eyes of these creature and say they don’t see a glimmer of a soul, of recognition of what is going on around them, then they aren’t paying attention. This is what Rowdy Girl should have focused on from the start.

A cow looks into the camera.