Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Rural family values


'Chris has the DNA of a Joe Orton character.'
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October Country, opening Friday at the Roxie, is an artfully constructed family album, a poetic distillation of grievances, regrets, squandered dreams, bitter memories and fleeting pleasures. Opening in a graveyard and climaxing at a Halloween party, this sumptuous feast of images and oral history from Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher is like an 80-minute slice from a Scott Heim novel, complemented by the knowing, character-dissecting eye of a Dorothea Lange.

Initiated by Mosher as a personal photo essay of his Upstate New York clan, the project morphed into a compelling nonfiction film in which three generations explain their lives and their place in the Mosher family pecking order. Imagine Our Town where the actors make up their characters' stories within a structure that mixes the idiosyncratic personal narrative style of This American Life with the rules of CBS' Survivor reality series. Somebody does indeed get voted off the Mosher family island.

Like Lange and her artfully framed photo tableaus of Depression-era Americans, filmmakers Palmieri and Mosher hope the travails of one extended family can inspire a national conversation on our country's social wounds, from shell-shocked soldiers to boyfriends and girlfriends locked in an eternal ballet of domestic and sexual abuse.

Several family members are frightfully articulate, capable of dialogues rivaling Wilder, O'Neill, Williams or Albee. Perhaps the most perceptive (and most wounded) are a grandfather whose four-decades-old memories of his Vietnam service prevent him from attending the headline event on his town's social calendar, the Fourth of July fireworks show in the Herkimer, NY WalMart parking lot; and a granddaughter who wiles away her days playing video games, contemplating a future where she'll disappear without a trace, while displaying social analytical skills that could win her employment as a Jerry Springer Show producer.

Perhaps the saddest and most revealing story of all involves the failure of Grandma's social reclamation project: taking in a bright but dodgy foster kid, Chris, who informs her in the very beginning that he will break her heart, then redeems the promise in spades with a personal crime spree that culminates in a burglary of the Mosher mansion. Chris has the DNA of a Joe Orton character: one farcical scene has him performing a witty show-and-tell on how to shoplift, in the men's department of the Herkimer WalMart. Chris is a born hustler: our last glimpse of him shows him bedecked in drag for Halloween, receiving ass compliments from somebody's rude boyfriend.

October Country is like a Hallmark card composed by the Addams Family. Watching these bright, passionate, doomed people, I wanted to reach out to them, explain how my life truly began when I left the Mohawk Valley. I wanted to do anything I could except move in next door.

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