It is the summer of documentaries, and after RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I’m happy to report there are two more excellent films to add to your list. They are very different, but both tell some of the most compelling stories of the year.
It’s difficult to review documentaries because you can’t very well review their subject matter. I can’t review and critique Whitney Houston and her life, so with Whitney I have to think about how the film presents the information it has. How does it tell her story? What kind of bias is introduced? What does the audience take away from the film? In Whitney, we see her entire life, from childhood to rising star, to troubled singer to her tragic death.
Director Kevin MacDonald stays mostly mute during the film, letting the interview subjects- close family and business associates of Whitney- speak, squabble, and accuse. Whenever one person accuses another of something, the accused gets to speak. I don’t want to reveal the biggest revelation the film digs up, but it turns the already somber film into a different piece of work about the artist’s life. It not only searches for answers to Whitney’s pain, but in all of the right moments, simply lets us live in it. Some things don’t have explanations, and I appreciated that the film just lets Whitney speak for herself in some cases, and doesn’t try to connect everything that happened with a reason. That said, as someone who didn’t know much about Whitney Houston before seeing the film, I learned a lot from not only hearing about the events in her life, but also from the various viewpoints on how those events occurred, the responses to them, and the effects on Whitney. The film balanced those two elements thoughtfully.
Walking away from the film, I am left with feeling like I just heard an Old Testament tragedy. A family, broken by addiction and greed and misplaced love, and at the center of it, a girl without a foundational identity and sense of purpose. The film is compassionate to its subjects, but unblinking in its depiction.
Three Identical Strangers is not as fair or compassionate as Whitney to the “enemies” of its subjects, but is one of the best thrillers of the year. What starts out as the lighthearted, human-interest story of three 19-year-olds finding out they are identical triplets, separated at birth, becomes a dark and uncomfortable tale as revelations are made about the circumstances surrounding their separation. The less you know going in, the better, but let’s just say that if you were born in the 1960s and adopted through a Jewish agency, you might come out thinking that you just might have a long-lost twin somewhere out there. It’s a story about nature vs nurture, the lies we tell ourselves to cope, and experimental ethics. The film ends with an angry plea for justice, which means the story of these three identical strangers, if the film becomes influential enough, may not be done quite yet.
Aesthetically, both films make use of talking heads (people looking at the camera as they are being interviewed) and footage from different media sources. Three Identical Strangers also makes use of reenactments in the beginning of the piece, and clips along at a nice pace. It’s not flashy, but it gets the job done. Whitney, while a little too long, is excellently edited. It mixes famous public footage (MTV and talk shows) with home-videos that capture Whitney unfiltered. It includes three montages of Whitney singing, intercut with clips of cultural touchstones that depict rapidly the environment Whitney was in and what the world was using her music to help them face. While neither film tries any cutting-edge documentary techniques (like the rotoscope animation used in 2016’s Tower or the animation from 2016’s Life, Animated) they still get their stories effectively and engrossingly across.
I don’t know why documentaries are having a box-office moment this summer. Perhaps the normal fare is weaker this year. Maybe MoviePass is encouraging people to see films they wouldn’t have considered otherwise. Perhaps, hearing true stories is a cathartic way to remind ourselves that nothing new is under the sun. Real life is crazy and bizarre and sad and beautiful, and we may find more security after we’ve made peace with that than if we only ask art to provide us an escape. Both of these films make the audience have an experience, an experience that draws us closer to fellow human beings, living and deceased. If that’s not worth the price of admission, I’m not sure what is.