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Bright Leaves

August 24, 2010

Bright Leaves (2003)
Director: Ross McElwee

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Synopsis: Documentarian, Ross McElwee, muses on the North Carolina tobacco industry and its strange, uncanny links to his own family history.

Review: This is a wonderfully wry and warm documentary – ostensibly intended as an investigation into director Ross McElwee’s familial roots in the North Carolina tobacco industry – but working more as a loose, but touching, elegy on the nature of documentary itself. McElwee’s framework operates on two levels: a sly paralleling of a Gary Cooper movie Bright Leaf to his own great-grandfather’s fall-from-grace in the tobacco world, and the attempt to incorporate the rediscovery of his North Carolina roots with his musings on family and the art of documentary. Some parts of McElwee’s discourse are more reliable than others, though that’s part of the charm of his unstructured and self-consciously nostalgic ramblings. His insights on the vastly assembled documentary footage of his family and the encounter with his cinephilic cousin are fascinating, although his branching into an anti-smoking polemic is less necessary. That said, there is an amusing but pertinent side-story concerning his frequent visitations to a couple who have vowed to give up smoking, but on each occasion provide lame excuses for their inability to quit. It’s an unsensational but utterly insightful view into people’s blindness and lack of fortitude in the face of addiction. (November 2006)

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