The family exposé, in which a documentary filmmaker takes as his subject the intimate details of his (generally troubled) relatives’ lives, is by its nature a dicey proposition. Besides skirting obvious issues of exploitation, this increasingly popular mode of filmmaking often reeks of a fatal presumption: What is intrinsically fascinating to the filmmaker (because of familial ties) must be of equal significance to an audience who has no vested interest in the subjects. Occasionally, as in Kimberley Reed’s recent Prodigal Sons, the sensitive handling of lurid material strikes nearly the right balance between exploitative leering and honest reflection, but far more typical of the genre is the narcissism of a film like The Horse Boy, in which all considerations of propriety are subsumed in the filmmaker’s need for personal validation.
While Phyllis and Harold, director Cindy Kleine’s look back at her parents’ fractious 59-year marriage, doesn’t approach the presumptuous self-regard of Rupert Isaacson’s vanity project, neither does it manage to communicate the intensive significance the director seems to locate in the proceedings. As Kleine interviews her eponymous parents over a period of several years, uncovers old love letters which she makes them read on camera, and narrates her own memories, what emerges is a murky portrait of a typically unhappy first-generation Jewish family. In an early sequence, Kleine cuts between an interrogation of each of her parents in which she questions them on their early life together and the differing responses—Dad reflects on his business success and calls them happy times, Mom relates an affair with a far more suitable partner and calls her marriage miserable—stand in for a lifetime spent in a mismatched union.
But while Kleine’s probing into her parents’ past goes some way toward fulfilling her stated goal of figuring out “who these people are and why they’re together,” the story she uncovers hardly seems significant enough to expect the viewer to share her sense of revelation. When, on several occasions, she stares into the camera and unfolds with grim earnestness the personal significance of her discoveries, the gap between authorial and audience point of view begins to seem nearly unbridgeable. Part of the problem stems from the fact that most of the information related to the circumstances of Kleine’s parent’s marriage is received secondhand. Relying on both her mother’s frank testimony and the director’s personal recollections, the film relates the grim circumstances of a stifling marriage, but they never come alive for the viewer. It’s one thing for the director to tell us that her house was “like a black hole” when she was growing up; it’s another to see some tangible evidence of that environment. And though Kleine intersperses a sampling of home-movie footage and still photographs amid the present day footage, it seems a particularly unrevealing selection, devoid of the occasional archival revelations that went some ways toward justifying Morgan Dews’s similarly themed (and similarly presumptuous) family doc Must Read After My Death.
Only in its final act, in which the director’s mother begins a late-in-life renaissance, does the film start to engage the audience with something resembling a sense of immediacy. Shucking off her lifelong philosophy of “You have to settle for what you have,” Phyllis recommences an affair with her lover of some 40 years earlier and, later, moves from her Long Island home to a Manhattan assisted living facility where she can walk around the city without reporting to her supposedly tyrannical husband. It’s clearly easier to generate interest in present-tense events than in past-tense reflection, but these late scenes communicate a sense of release unmatched by the feeling of stifling domesticity supposedly relayed by the earlier scenes. Still, just as Phyllis’s belated freedom is scarcely enough to make up for a lifetime of dissatisfaction, so the film’s final act can’t undo the largely uninspired presentation of its first hour. If you’re related to Phyllis and Harold Kleine, any information about their lives is liable to be of interest. For the rest of us, even after watching the film, it’s far more likely to remain a question of almost complete indifference.