At The Movies

Two Lively New Documentaries: Both With a Southern Accent

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Flannery O'Connor is shown observing her beloved peacocks in a period photo by Joe McTyre. Copyright by Long Distance Productions.

Flannery
For a writer now so critically acclaimed, novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor (1924-1964) has never been the subject of a major film biography, so one is grateful to welcome this new documentary. O’Connor was a distinctive voice of the Southern Gothic style who produced the bulk of her provocative and complex works living with her mother in a farmhouse  (named “Andalusia”) for much of her life—a kind of southern Emily Dickinson—but with writing of a utterly different kind (the film is unrated and runs 97 minutes; it is available streaming on the Avalon Theatre site).

Filmmakers Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco have captured the character of this singular American voice by presenting an informative narrative in a straightforward chronology of her life, a life curtailed by death at only 39 from the ravages of lupus disease. The film covers her early years growing up in Georgia, where she eventually settled with her mother in the town of Milledgeville. Her literary bent was much shaped by stints in the 1940’s at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and at the writing retreat of Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, where she got to know major talents such as Robert Lowell and Carson McCullers.

O’Connor’s slim but memorable oeuvre (two novels and some 30 short stories) began when she was in her teens, and she came to public attention with her first novel “Wise Blood” when she was 27. (This work was filmed by John Huston in 1977, and clips of it are shown). While she did travel delivering lectures, for most of her life she was a recluse at Andalusia, writing, corresponding, and caring for her beloved peacocks.

Co-creator Bosco, Jesuit priest, O’Connor scholar, and a professor of Literature at Georgetown University, came up with the idea to write a script about Flannery, on which he collaborated with Coffman, herself a scholar and filmmaker specializing in films about writers.

In telling her story, the filmmakers  employ never-before-seen archival footage, some of her newly discovered personal letters, and original animations and music to describe her life and legacy. Flannery’s own published words are read on screen by actress Mary Steenburgen, who delivers them with an appropriate Southern lilt. The film is also dotted with testimony from and conversations with those who knew O’Connor or were inspired by her (​Alice Walker, Lucinda Williams, Hilton Als, Robert Giroux, and Alice McDermott, among others).

The script stresses the writer’s profound, but thorny, Catholic faith which permeated her writing her whole life. It was a faith matching grace together with a searing violence. It also does not avoid O’Connor’s bred-in-the-bone racism and her occasionally distasteful treatment of Afro-Americans, who are often stereotyped in her narratives.  Yet it also acknowledges O’Connor’s creation of believable and singular black characters with real human dimension. Ever true to her Southern roots, she stated, near the end of her life:  “You know, I’m an integrationist by principle & a segregationist by taste anyway.”

“Flannery” is sure to introduce this singular and confounding writer to new readers.

Robert MacDougall (left) and Steven Garza are contenders for governor of “Boys State.” Photo courtesy of A24 and Apple

Boys State
“Boys State” (winner of the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at this year’s

Sundance Film Festival) is a week-long annual program in which rising Texas high school seniors gather for an elaborate mock exercise: building their own state government (there is a matching session for girls). Filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine closely tracked the 2018 edition of the program, held at the University of Texas at Austin, where 1,100 17-year old young men contended in a riveting gubernatorial race (the film is rated “PG-13,” runs 109 minutes and can be viewed on Apple platforms).

The Boys State participants, each selected by local American Legion clubs throughout the state, represented an intriguing mix of young political junkies. The attendees are all divided into the “Federalist” and the “Nationalist” parties, neither of which is associated with any particular ideology but is rather guided by their respective elected leadership.

The movie makers, showing a good eagle eye, focus on a quartet of committed and distinctive kids to carry the drama. There is conservative Ben, a Reagan fan with a love for politics who bubbles with confidence and savvy even though he is disabled; modest Steven, a Bernie Sanders fan and thoughtful child of Mexican immigrants who, though diffident in demeanor, bravely puts himself forward against a conservative tide; handsome Robert, a stud and athlete whose run is only semi-serious but who reveals surprising views that belie his rowdy campaign; and glib René, an African-American from Chicago new to Texan mores whose wit and speaking skills mark him as a natural leader.  All these principal figures (among others) also reveal themselves touchingly in personal interviews away from the turmoil of campaigning.

The film covers a week of political activity, from party nominations and committee assignments through platform-making to party conventions and primaries. This is political activity that is vertigousness to watch, electoral action at warp speed. And some of it is not exactly serious: in the platform debate, for example, the big achievement is a silly, short-sighted victory for a plank that would have Texas secede from the union. One wise-ass fellow asserts that his “masculinity shall not be infringed.” The kids’ issues also cannot avoid the slop over from national politics, so, it turns out, the principal items of debate reflect national hot-button issues with little resonance in their own lives, i.e., gun rights and abortion!

All the whirl leads up to the Big Kahuna, the governor’s race, wherein Robert, for the Federalists (under cynical party chairman Ben), competes against Steven for the Nationalists (under righteous party chairman René).  Luckily for the filmmakers, their contest is a nail-biter, with enough drama for two or three films.

It is a kind of miracle that Moss and McBaine were able to pull off the documentary from this ten-ring circus over a week, but they managed.  One reason is that they collared seven different sound-and film crews to troll the university campus, collecting hundreds of offhand conversations, speechifying moments, myriad tactical discussions, and those personal interviews with the boys themselves. It occurs to me that, during our own restricted and sour national campaigns, we might be better served—and entertained–by “Boys State.”

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.