Who’d have thunk that a freeform meditation on tobacco, family, and filmmaking would be so compelling? Documentarian Ross McElwee, whose great grandfather helped launch the tobacco industry, returns to his childhood home of North Carolina to meander through an exploration of his heritage, but “documentary” isn’t quite the word to describe the result — it’s more like a free-association video montage or a lucid dream.
With the 1950 Gary Cooper/Patricia Neal movie Bright Leaf as his jumping off point — McElwee suspects that the tobacco soap opera may have been inspired by his great grandfather’s life — the filmmaker rambles through the one-two punch of his family’s heritage (all the guilt of contributing to a worldwide tobacco addiction with none of the massive wealth and power), his “addiction” to filmmaking that has compelled him to shoot his son at all stages of his life in an attempt to prevent him from growing past all the adorable stages, and the willful blindness of tobacco people to the harm their product does.
It’s all tied together with clips from Bright Leaf and old home movies and McElwee’s self-analysis of his own quirks and neuroses, and it couldn’t be more fascinating.
‘Bright Leaves’ is available to stream in the US on OVID.