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October Country Review

February 20, 2010 | Posted by 411Mania Staff
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October Country Review  

Michael Palmieri
Donal Mosher (co-director)
Donal Mosher (writer)
Michael Palmieri (co-writer)

Although it may all be relative in Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s brisk and moving documentary, October Country, the fine folks depicted may not be your relatives, and thus, their various fights and issues might appear a little on the extreme and unsubtle side. This is a quirky, idiosyncratic group of characters, a family always at odds and yet subtly strung together, living their lives in solitude one lonely and morose day at a time. Residing in the area of Mohawk, New York, our filmmakers (one a member of the family himself, or so his last name would imply) document, for an entire year, the ever emotional, painfully honest middle-class Mosher family. There are great-grandparents, grandparents, mothers (fathers are lacking), brothers, sisters, aunts, babies, adopted children, pets, and more, and what the film is most successful at is how it shows the family living with (and sometimes opposed to) one another; they may not all get along, but they need each member to get on with their lives. Our filmmakers never intervene in order to dramatize certain events — the film strives not for sensationalism but for filmic and artistic expression. October Country is the study of history, memories, and the class system.

This is not a tight-knit family where everyone lives together, with a grandma upstairs knitting and a little grandson playing catch on the front lawn in tow. There is no picket fence, there are no butterflies, and one can almost guarantee that Audrey would run back to her little shop of horrors with Seymour after seeing this surbanized landscape. No, the town of Mohawk isn’t ugly or rapidly aging in a visual sense, but one gets the feeling that it has stored up a lot of past difficulties, regret, and emotional baggage in its now how-ever-many-year history. What once seemed to prosper appears stuck in an unpleasant, quickly sinking rut.

The local staple, a firearm/ammunition manufacturing plant, is on its way out. There are local crimes reported all throughout the area. One Mosher family member, the ever outspoken pre-teen redhead, complains that the local play area is too dirty for recreation; with the word “graffiti” written out in red marker on a child’s slide, Mohawk itself seems left to wither away and die. As much about the locations as it is its residents, the film and its cautious approach incorporate a fulfilling ethnographic view of neglected America.

Going through the Mosher family at a moderate pace, the first person of note is Dottie, the family patriarch and elderly grandmother concerned with the well-being of her clan. She plays so many roles that she often gets caught up in the drama that surrounds her but does not necessarily include her. There is a reason for this, as she wants to set her family straight and onto the right path. Years ago, her daughter conceived at a very early age, was married off, and went on to have an abusive relationship with her husband. Now her daughter gets pregnant, marries young, and has an abusive relationship with her own husband (both mother and daughter divorced their respective deadbeat spouses soon after). The neverending cycle continues. These women become young, single mothers looking for their mama’s support. But what would they do with it? Their choices in men doesn’t change (the teenage mom has a new irresponsible, lackadaisical, uninspired boyfriend, while her mother’s second boyfriend was, well, a pedophile), and they rely so heavily on their family’s support that they never learn to fight for themselves.

There’s a cute little baby in the movie, the great-grandchild of Dottie. In one scene, the child’s mother talks about wanting to have gone through with an abortion when she was pregnant. In another, the young mom talks about potentially losing custody of the child to Tony, her ex-psychopathic husband. Tony, we hear, used to bang his wife’s head into the wall while she held their child in her arms. And yet the baby’s innocence may be exploited not by the court system but by the neglectful and undetermined parents. As Dottie and the teen mom converse, the baby appears in the middle of the frame, up front, looking right at us as if to say, “I know they’re talking about me. I’m the real one in trouble here.” And so the toddler’s fate, by the time the film concludes, may be the most tragic and unjust of them all. Neither falsely optimistic nor crudely one-sided, the film sheds light on the issue of child abuse in more ways than one.

Never is this more clear than with the teenage, hip hopping, adopted son of Dottie and her husband. Brought up stealing and hanging with the wrong crowd, this boy is a typical youth in revolt, and this is even more upsetting for he has been pigeonholed into believing he cannot change. No one believes that he can ever alter his spots — Dottie remembers years ago when he warned not to get too close to him. He appreciates his family and all that they’ve done (he significantly notes that they are the only group of people who has ever loved him), but he still finds it necessary to steal and sell their personal items when need be. Our filmmakers realize that he is a good kid, however, and he is shown as troubled but not hopeless. One Halloween, he dresses up as an abused housewife, and we are stricken by his obliviousness to the tragic past experiences of the Mosher women. He isn’t mocking these ladies, but perhaps feels comfortable around them; he too sees himself as an abandoned victim.

The film has its fair share of oddball supporting characters, and they are more crucial to the narrative than we may initially think. Dottie’s sister-in-law, a plump middle-aged woman who practices witchcraft and who walks around local desolate cemeteries looking for ghostly spirits and other paranormal entities, is definitely a character. She’s a real person, alright, but she exists in a world all her own, quiet and solemn and lacking self-esteem. Her brother is ashamed of her unsociable tendencies and tries to avoid her at family gatherings. We’re not so sure how she feels for him, except for the fact that when he went off to fight in Vietnam years ago, she told her brother that she wished he would die in battle. Although given only a brief history, the brother’s and sister’s emotional past is summed up non-verbally in a scene in which she comes over for a Halloween costume party. The two do not address each other, and the awkwardness of the situation runs rampant as the eerie, cheap decorations look on.

October Country is a indie doc with filmmaking panache. Provided with a memorable cast worthy of an Errol Morris documentary, this case study uses quick cuts, cross-cutting, and fades to black to give off a sense of juxtaposition (two cigarettes being lit simultaneously) and the passing of time (whenever the image fades, a new season seems to be upon us). The film also uses personal home video footage to provide a visual historiography further expanding the Mosher’s narrative scope. A young Mosher girl dances with her grandfather on Christmas as her troubled future is described via voiceover; the film doesn’t foreshadow as much as contrast between the innocent and the abusive.

The closing moments of the film dig heavily into the idea of the existence of ghosts and the idea of people wearing masks to conceal their true emotions. This concept/question has been circulating for centuries. Here we have a family with a lot of baggage, and they need to put it down, take a breath, and rest. For how long can they live with the ghosts of their past? At one memorable point, putting the dishes away after being told that her husband is going to report their son to the police for theft, Dottie starts to quietly tear up. She knows she is being filmed, and thus quickly pulls herself together. We must always remain strong, especially for the camera. This an ideal film, if not for a sequel than for an annual update. “Que serra, serra, whatever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see, que serra, serra.”

The 411October Country is a small documentary that may prove much to your liking. It hits close to him because this is a real, non-manufactured, non-Hollywoodized American family, with all the problems and troubles that come along with it. It's particularly sad too. Finances are consistently an issue, and the actions of some characters (teen pregnancy, abortion) may be quite painful to think about. An abandoned youth or an abandoned America? October Country sheds light on a family going through the same stuff as all of us. The leaves blow just the same.
Final Score:  8.0   [ Very Good ]  legend

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