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ASSISTED LIVING (NR) (2003)

Economic Projections

Official Site

Director: Elliot Greenebaum

Producers: Alan Oxman, Archie Borders, Elliot Greenebaum, Alex Laskey

Written by: Elliot Greenebaum

Cast: Michael Bonsignore, Maggie Riley, Nancy Jo Boone, Malerie Boone, Clint Vaught, Kathy Hogan, Jose Albovias, the staff and residents of the Masonic Homes of Kentucky

Rating:


A film company and crew came
To town to take pictures all around.
First they set up here, then they set up there.
With their bright lights they caused us to stare.

Up and down the wings they go
Setting up lights and taking them down,
Filming along the way.
One shot, then two to be sure
They have a film that’s true.

Interesting topic was chosen to use.
Could it be called the nursing home blues?

—B.M.H.
Resident, Masonic Homes of Kentucky

Told that 27-year-old writer/director/producer Elliot Greenebaum’s debut Assisted Living was shot with a cast of mostly non-actors almost entirely within the confines of a functioning Louisville, Kentucky nursing home, one might expect a few things: washed-out, antiseptic locales, a film whose success hinges largely on directing and editing, a cast list peppered fairly liberally with Ednas, Junes, and Mabels. And while Assisted Living certainly delivers on these fronts, (and tacks on a Hattie and a Lula, for good measure,) it also—perhaps unexpectedly—does a good bit more. Elevated by sure-handed craftsmanship and surprising, heart-breaking performances, Assisted Living is a masterfully controlled, unassumingly simple story whose tenderness and impish wit make it one of the most affecting truly independent films in some time. (Come on, like Sideways really had trouble getting picked up with Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti attached? Scoff.)

Begun when Greenebaum was a 22-year-old NYU grad student, as an experiment in blending documentary-style filmmaking with fictional storytelling, Assisted Living (runtime 78 minutes) has the narrative pace and feel of a short story, with many of the hallmarks of the best of that medium—cleanness and ease of motion, an inclination toward subtle poetry, and, perhaps most effective of all, marked non-contrivance. Utilizing only one cast member (New York actor Michael Bonsignore) from outside of Kentucky and relying heavily upon the genuine reactions and behavior of real staff members and residents, the finished product is a fully fleshed, innovative combination of cinema verite and quirkish fancy, resulting in a number of scenes that Greenebaum happily characterizes as “literally neither fact nor fiction.”

The film centers upon the nascent relationship between detached, slackerish janitor/stoner Todd (Bonsignore) and the lonely Mrs. Pearlman, (fantastic “newcomer” Maggie Riley) a resident who spends every waking hour awaiting word from her son, and whose grip on reality is swiftly fading due to the onset of Alzheimer’s. We open with a makeshift tour of the institution, consisting of excerpted staff interviews (most of which seem unscripted and legit) and Discovery Channel-style shots of the ambling senior fauna—both of which continue throughout the film. The interview clips begin as rote, orientation-style pleasantries, (“These are our facilities,” “We treasure old people,” etc.,) but soon turn to the topics of Todd and his less-than-sterling work habits, referring to these, forebodingly enough, in the past tense. As the picture, (which is thus essentially a flashback,) progresses, this periodic chorus serves two purposes: It reminds the viewer to worry that something terrible is going to happen, and provides structure and segue during the early goings of the film, which consist chiefly of colorful scene-setting and entertaining examples of Todd’s Peter-Pannish sensibilities. Highlights: Todd mounts a wheelchair and goes on safari through the geriatric jungle, passing a group of slo-mo aerobicizers that looks like something out of a particularly odd version of Fantasia; emotions reach a breaking point during a brief, powder-keg round of Scrabble; and most memorably, Todd “comforts” residents afraid of death by pretending to be a friendly voice from the other side (saying more might spoil one of the more gleefully written and ingeniously amusing scenes that you’re likely to see for quite a while). Things take a more serious turn, however, when Todd (very accidentally) befriends Mrs. Pearlman and begins to think there might be more to life than a toke and a paycheck.

Bonsignore does a good job with the sometimes listless, sometimes passionate Todd. He is funny, he does not over- or underplay it, and he is unassailably believable at every turn. Much the same can be said for the other actors, as well, which is a colossal compliment to Greenebaum’s direction. You catch nurse Nancy Jo Boone and counselor Kathy Hogan acting maybe once or twice, but not by much, and you probably have to be watching for it. Clint Vaught turns in an interesting, if brief, performance as the home’s chief administrator, into whose appreciably troubled life we get choice glimpses. There is surprising depth here for a character who, in other films, would have simply been a transparent plot device. (Also, watch for Boone’s sprightly real-life 3-year-old daughter Malerie, who is just about the cutest little piece of dynamic scenery you can imagine.) Generally, kudos all around to the cast, who remain so realistic and reined-in that it becomes an entertaining challenge to try to spot fakery.

But it’s Riley’s movie.

A former circus performer whose credits include a 14-elephant musical revue and an aerial act for which she hung by her teeth while pregnant, the 80-year-old Louisville actress here gives a performance that is no less spectacular (though one can imagine that it’s several thousand times subtler). In a single, tremendous scene, Riley turns a sharp emotional corner and dramatically reinvents Todd, Mrs. Pearlman, and the entire thrust and direction of the film. She, in a film intimately concerned with optimism, sadness, and humanity, is the greatest source and most stirring example of all three.

Assisted Living is a simple film. That said, it is just about flawless. The directing is assured and inventive. The acting is solid, with moments of uncommon brilliance. The editing is incisively perceptive and exquisitely timed throughout, but especially during the aforementioned throat-lumping phone conversation between Mrs. Pearlman and Todd. The writing is by turns gleeful, heartfelt, and softly poetic—Mrs. Pearlman gives Todd a pair of old-people wraparound sunglasses because his “eyes are always so hurt.”

Here’s hoping a very good film gets wide distribution.

Maybe Alexander Payne will see it and put a good word in.

—Brian Villalobos

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...


Mike Doughty



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