Portraits of families - particularly ones with quirks or disfunctions - are a proud subset of the nonfiction genre, stretching back to AN AMERICAN FAMILY and even earlier. But recently, a number of filmmakers are addressing these issues within their own family and doing so with a sense of artistry that boosts what could have straightforward portrayals of infidelity, abuse or illness.
Within the past two years we've watched Morgan Dews' essayistic collage poem, MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH, and Jeremiah Zagar's beautifully filmed IN A DREAM, both looking to the previous generations - grandparents and parents - in their exploration of the family dynamic.
Now comes OCTOBER COUNTRY, Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher's lyrical and devastating look at Mosher's family in a small town in upstate New York where the only place left to shop is a Wal-Mart super center. While portraits of slowly decaying towns have been captured before, few have been rendered as beautifully as OCTOBER COUNTRY, as filmed by Palmieri (who was inspired by earlier essayistic photographs taken by partner Mosher). Through his lens, we know that Herkimer, NY (population 7500) is on the ropes, even before the film tells us (in an almost sideways reference) that the nearly Remington Arms plant may soon close and deprive the region of a major economic source.
Appropriate them that this disintegrating town, which knows it's in trouble but may not have the wherewithall to recover, is the backdrop to the Mosher family story: father Don, bottled up emotionally from Vietnam-caused PTSD; long-suffering mother Dottie and daughter (Donal's sister) Donna. Donna has two kids of her own - teenager Danael, coping with a young baby that she can barely take care of, and precocious adolescent Desi. Together with Chris, an "adopted" teenage shoplifter that Dottie takes in, the daughters form the heart of the film. It is their story that poses the central question - how do you break the cycle?
Now, inherently we know that the cycle can be broken and we know that the cycle has been broken already in this family - filmmaker Donal (unseen and unreferenced in the film) is clearly an artist of considerable talents. But Donal and Michael's unflinching view of the Mosher family causes the rest of his siblings to reflect on their own ability to escape. Chris knows, deep in his heart, that he can do more than figure out clever ways to steal from Wal-Mart. Danael sees herself making the same mistakes that her own, still young, mother Donna did - pregnant at a young age, attracted to abusive men. These are not oblivious victims. They see the path they are on but seem to have no idea how to get off.
It's in respecting the inherent intelligence of their characters that Palmieri and Mosher shine - in addition to the formality of their craft and the beauty of their compositions. Perhaps it was essential that this family story should be told by a family member. While the film suggests that young Desi may be the one to break the family's destructive cycles, the fact that Donal has already broken free may not just help the youngest but just may help them all.