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?
Resident, Masonic Homes of Kentucky
Told that 27-year-old writer/director/producer Elliot Greenebaum
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
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.