Bill and Turner Ross’s Tchoupitoulas begins with wistful narration from its young protagonist, an impoverished African-American boy with a distinctly Southern drawl detailing a dream he’s recently had: “I don’t really have dreams,” he says, “but last night I did. It was actually a close-up of my future—like a flashback, except a flashing future. I was dreaming I seen me in the NFL, and I was playing for the New York Giants.” Right away, the similarities between this doc-fiction hybrid and Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild are evident, which makes sense considering both films are products of Court 13, a so-called “independent filmmaking army” made up of a group of ex-New Yorkers who moved to New Orleans in hopes of fostering a grassroots film community. But thanks to its decidedly less sensationalistic point of view, Tchoupitoulas proves the perfect antidote to the twee affectations of Zeitlin’s feature.
Structured like a classic city symphony, the film is a richly impressionistic evocation of the sights, sounds, and personalities of New Orleans at nighttime, specifically in the areas surrounding Tchoupitoulas Street, an infamous stretch of road that begins in the raucous French Quarter and runs all the way through the bustling Business District. Our guides on this journey are the aforementioned narrator, William, and his older siblings, Bryan and Kentrell, whose dry coolness is counteracted by William’s youthful zest; together, they hop on a ferry from their lower-class neighborhood and spend an eventful evening exploring the nightlife festivities.
In condensing nine months worth of footage into a single evening, the Ross brothers turn their film into a sort of neorealist fantasy adventure, one that’s imbued with a gritty aesthetic that nevertheless adheres to the naïf fascination of its characters; at one point, William exuberantly exclaims that the French Quarter is “everything I hoped for: naked pictures, clubs…” The overall experience is entirely immersive, thanks not only to the filmmakers’ handheld camera, but also to the illusory nature of the staging. The New Orleans depicted in Tchoupitoulas is a reverie of light and color; the flickering streetlamps, blurring in and out of focus, occasionally take on a Brakhagian quality. A climactic scene, in which the boys discover a decrepit and abandoned ferry, is awash in the golden hues of the surrounding cityscape, giving the action an enticing if occasionally spooky tone.
Nearly ruining the sensuous imagery, however, is William’s cutesy voiceover, clearly written for him by the filmmakers. It’s in these instances that Tchoupitoulas most recalls Beasts of the Southern Wild. Both films speak of communal and spiritual harmony, and both are bogged down by a curious decision to spell things out too explicitly. Still, when at its best, Tchoupitoulas communicates this theme gracefully, if only because it lets the streets do the talking.