Foreign & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video ">
Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video
Upstate New York has lovely fall foliage where the northern tip of the Appalachians meets the Mohawk River Valley. Donal Mosher turned his still camera from the flora to the domestic fauna of his hometown in Herkimer County, photographing his own family over several years. With filmmaker Michael Palmieri partnering, October Country adds the frankness of his family to capture working-class life in this chronically economically depressed region.
Donal’s family collaborated on this intimate tour of their lives from one autumn to the next. Opening and closing with the playful ghosts of Halloween, the beautifully photographed cycle of the changing seasons serves as a metaphor for the family’s struggles with repeating patterns of unstable relationships and abuse.
The women are naturally expressive, particularly with some prodding from big brother Donal and the matriarch, Dottie. His sister, Donna, barely copes with the aftermath of a series of abusive relationships with men, and her daughter Daneal eerily repeats her mother’s dysfunctional behavior with domineering men, teen pregnancies, and custody battles. His aunt Denise, ridden with arthritis, escapes into the Wiccan spirit world. Even though his irrepressible tween-age niece Desi delightfully mugs to the camera and touts that she’s smarter than her female relatives, the viewer can only wonder how she and her baby niece Ruby will break away from what she mocks as their “bad taste in men.”
One sequence works effectively, though heavy-handedly, to visually reveal a lot about the taciturn patriarch Don, a retired police officer. The camera moves from the local Remington firearms factory to the Fourth of July celebrations at a fireworks display in the parking lot of the area’s major retailer, Wal-Mart. But the rockets’ red glare and the colorful bombs bursting in air uncomfortably stir up memories for Don of his military deployments with the National Guard, echoing his wife’s earlier complaints how he returned from Vietnam in 1968 a different man, “harder” than the one she had married.
Amidst all this depression and stress, the copiously maternal Dottie also takes in foster children like stray dogs—Chris this particular year, who professes his appreciation by robbing her. He uses up Don’s limited sympathy, and is the only child to drive Dottie to tears on screen.
The novice documentarians don’t always have the gift of the Maysles for letting the camera run to capture significant gestures and interactions that inform beyond words. Many times the family members seem to be repeating facile explanations from social workers or Oprah while talking too much about their problems, but with their familiarity with the camera, the problematic patterns emerge repeatedly on screen.
Though Don muses that his
family “wouldn’t know normal if it fell on us,” their difficulties have
universality. (Donal also co-wrote the melancholy score that frequently
uses Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” as a leitmotif.) A
few recent fiction films also illustrate the limited options,
particularly for women, in this region (Courtney
set a bit north, and a bit south,
Down to the Bone).
But October Country is a rare opportunity to hear from real
people recovering from bad choices, who still have tough decisions to
face. Nora Lee Mandel