Rural Poverty + Family Dysfunction = Documentary Gold!

02/10/2010 4:00 AM |

October Country
Directed by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher

October Country is about a family named Mosher, and the Mohawk Valley where they live. It opens in the cemetery where the matriarch’s parents are buried, and where most of the living Moshers will presumably end up. Soon, you meet different generations of Moshers, doomed to never escape the Valley. But wait—the documentary’s co-director, never identified or referred to by the people onscreen, who took the photographs and wrote the essays that eventually led to its making, clearly “escaped” and “made something of himself.” This fact, along with the persevering wit of the clan’s younger members, smuggles glints of light and hope into the sometimes oppressively dreary portrait of lower middle class American malaise.

The Mohawk Valley is wedged between the Adirondacks and the Catskills—one reason some of its residents might feel trapped. In keeping with upstate New York, it contains proportional extremes of both topographical beauty and social poverty. October Country pays scant attention to the former, and its characters’ take on it (“During the summer it still sucks as much as it does during the spring, fall, and winter”) will doubtfully earn the doc endorsement from the tourism board. Then again, it’s just one family’s opinion, and their problems transcend environment. Icy but hard-working father Don, a veteran of three wars, suffers from PTSD. His daughter Donna is a veteran of several abusive relationships, the products of which are daughters Daneal (depressed, already divorced, and with child) and the waggish Desi, who has all of the best lines. Don’s estranged sister Denise is a heavily medicated Wiccan who trolls the cemetery at night, politely whispering to the void. Perhaps most troubled of all is the kleptomaniacal foster son Chris (the name an appreciated alliteration break), who is banished after he robs the Mosher home of some computers.

The directors rip off the front of their house and display all of the Moshers’ sordid tragedies like a bisected diorama, in a fit of intense anti-vanity (with a dash of attention-seeking, perhaps) by the family. But October Country is also heavily aestheticized, its languid camera loping about, seeking bits of Egglestonian mundane beauty (blurred firework sparks, swirling ashtray smoke), scored to ambient pluck and drone. It’s much more visually handsome and assured than the average DV-shot doc, but the approach somewhat awkwardly complements the economic miseries of the subject matter. Like Donal Mosher’s judgmental photograph of his family’s tattered Grisham and Clancy paperbacks, there’s also a faint Pecker-like, yokels-on-display whiff of exploitation at times, distancing it from great heartland documentaries like God’s Country or Seventeen. The one-year time frame of October Country extends from one Halloween to the next, and the dicey extended analogy likens the Moshers somewhat cruelly to living ghosts. Still, by movie’s end you feel you know the family and care about their fate and that of countless families with similar woes. By that yardstick, at least, the documentary succeeds.

Opens February 12