Last of the Monster Kids

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Monday, February 18, 2019

OSCARS 2018: Hale County This Morning This Evening (2018)

As an amateur film critic, it can sometimes be difficult to see some of the Oscar-nominated films every February. While studios are increasingly learning that digital streaming and rentals are the best way to make many of these films available, a lot of distributors are still sticking to the limiting strategy of dropping foreign language films or documentaries into a few art house theaters in big cities. Because of this, there's going to be three or four nominees this year that I won't be able to see before the ceremony. Which is why I'm thankful that PBS decided to showcase “Hale County, This Morning This Evening” as part of its Independent Lens series. I probably wouldn't have been able to see what is now my favorite of the nominated documentaries otherwise.

As the title indicates, “Hale County, This Morning This Evening” is about Hale County, Alabama. RaMell Ross' film does not have a traditional narrative. The closest we get is following a new father leading up to the birth and how he reacts when the child dies suddenly of SIDS. Instead, the photographer-turned-director gives us little snapshots all throughout the town, showing brief glimpses of people as they go about their lives. This ends up making “Hale County, This Morning This Evening” sometimes feel less like a movie and more like some sort of art installation. Yet it's utterly fascinating nevertheless.

“Hale County,” in the best way, reminded of the early films of Errol Morris, “Gates of Heaven” and “Vernon, Florida” especially. Like those groundbreaking documentaries, Ross' film does an excellent job of capturing little moments as they happen. We watch, for several minutes, as a little child walks back and forth through a room. We see the newfound excitement and joy the kid greets this simple action with. We watch people walk their dogs around a neighborhood, talking to each other and gently socializing. We see Hale County residents plays sports, hang-out, casually interact. Sometimes, Ross just drives around the town, looking at the streets and store fronts. Yet it's never tedious or dull. Instead, it feels like you are getting a perfect encapsulation of life in this small town.

This extends to grabbing small moments of beauty, the type of sights you see every day but do not think about much. After a man drags a large tire into a fire, the camera focuses on the smoke as it dances up into the blue sky. Sometimes, Ross pushes things even further in an abstract direction. A shot of a baby playing in a bath is slowly overlaid with a shot of a flashlight moving through the night. For a brief minute, it looks like the infant has suddenly grabbed a ball of light out of nowhere. Later, during a basketball game, Ross lapses into slow motion as people cheer and leap out of their seats. The words “Whose boy is this?” echoes for a few minutes over the next scene. I know calling a motion picture a “tone poem” is rather pretentious but “Hale County, This Morning This Evening” really does seem like one. It's a series of images and sounds that evoke a very specific feeling quite effectively.

Yet I suspect Ross' goals are more complex than just capturing life in a small town or pointing out the little moments of beauty that we pass by every day. It's not mistake that Hale County is largely occupied by black people, that nearly every person we see in the film is of color. Ross peppers the film with vague intertitles, many of which seem to be speaking to some greater statement about what being black in the American south is like. Among these digression is footage of silent black performer Bert Williams. What exactly these moments mean I can't quite decipher. However, by so intimately capturing life in this largely black town, Ross beautifully paints a picture of How Things Are, how everyone is different and similar. Without many big statements or a sense of self-importance,  “Hale County” makes a subtle point about race.

The other night, I said “Roma” was a film that “moved at the speed of life.” This is even more true of “Hale County,” a movie that progresses from one seemingly unimportant event to another, in much the same way real life does. It's a motion picture of quiet beauty, taking us into the lives of others in an unobtrusive but intimate way. If you've ever spent a few nights in a small town, you recognize the very particular feeling the movie captures. When paired with Ross' talent for creating unexpected moments of poetry, it makes “Hale County, This Morning This Evening” an act of true art, as well as an interesting social statement. I liked it a lot, so thank you, PBS. [8/10]

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