A family drama that’s creative and creepy
The title should be your first hint that “October Country’’ wants to play with you. Isn’t this supposed to be a low-budget documentary about an average impoverished family in New York’s Mohawk Valley? It sounds more like the offshoot of a high-concept cigarette ad campaign: Come to where the dysfunction is. Come to October Country.
Make that an anti-cigarette ad campaign, because the many related generations of smokers in “October Country’’ aren’t selling cool, and they aren’t living the kind of lives anyone would want to emulate. They’re simply going along, fully conscious of their demons and ghosts, acting as if they’re doomed to repeat a cycle of underachievement and abuse.
And that’s where the Halloween theme comes in.
First-time filmmakers Michael Palmieri (mainly known as a director of music videos) and Donal Mosher (a photographer whose intimate stills inspired this movie) decide to chronicle a year in the life of Mosher’s family. They start and end in October, of course. And instead of taking a point-and-shoot approach to the everyday horrors of just getting by in today’s America, they tell their tale with an eerie, offbeat artistic sensibility that turns the clan into a sort of Addams Family on food stamps.
Sometimes all the creativity is a plus — making something cinematically interesting out of a homemade haunted house — and sometimes it feels like the monster that ate the movie. Too often, the camera is angling to be the star.
Still, Dottie Mosher, the kindly, wrinkled matriarch at the center of this film, holds her ground. She’s tough and fun-loving, despite being married to a hardened former soldier, Don, who remains scarred by his war experiences. Their daughter, Donna, was a troubled child and teenage mother who survived multiple abusive relationships. Now middle-aged, Donna has one daughter, Daneal, who is repeating the exact same pattern at 19, and a younger child, Desi, who hides behind precocious humor and makes unconvincing promises about exceeding family expectations.
There’s drama over the custody of Daneal’s baby, Ruby (at least she broke the pattern of “D’’ names), whose father wants her. There’s more drama over a foster teen, Chris, who’s grateful for being taken in by Dottie and Don but who can’t seem to stay out of prison. And then there’s Denise, Don’s estranged sister, who’s a Wiccan; she collects unicorns and talks to the dead.
Missing from the on-camera mix is Donal, the filmmaker, whose place in the family is never acknowledged (he’s Don and Dottie’s son), though he’s obviously a presence behind the lens of cinematographer Palmieri. The omission may seem a little odd, and it is. But it tells you something about the filmmakers’ intention to freely combine documentary, reality television, art project, ghost story, and social and political commentary (almost everyone in the Moshers’ town is employed by a weapons manufacturer).
What results is both real and surreal, giving and self indulgent. That’s the country we all live in.