Little more than an ethnographic sketch, American Mystic supplies slender snapshots of three Americans practicing alternative religions. Kublai is studying to be a healer and medium in New York, Morpheus is a witch who lives on a California estate with her husband and stepdaughter, and Chuck is a husband and father living on a South Dakota reservation who performs the traditional Native American ritual of sundancing. All three willingly exist on society’s margins, and director Alex Mar shoots them with a patience and attentiveness to their natural environments that—coupled with her decision to largely rely on her subjects’ voiceover narration for dialogue—attunes the film to their shared belief in, and desire for profound communion with, a higher spiritual power.
Because Mar allows Kublai, Morpheus, and Chuck to dictate their own stories free from questioning, this form-content harmony comes to feel like advocacy, though as with everything about American Mystic, such promotion is of a gentle, free-flowing sort. More pressing is a sense of repetition, as continuous, striking cinematography of the landscape at dusk, of Stonehenge-ish rock formations spied at night, and of totemic objects and designs—not to mention unconventional ceremonies, from Morpheus praying in a strange language to Kublai doggedly rubbing a fork while his compatriots sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”—locate these people’s sense of faith precisely but monotonously.
Montages of old black-and-white photographs and illustrations underline the fact that these alternative religions offer a direct means of connecting (or reconnecting) with the past, be it Kublai’s influential parents, Morpheus’s witch ancestry, or Chuck’s Native American heritage. And especially in Kublai’s expression of discontent over his poor, menial labor-intensive “regular life,” the film touches on the way in which these beliefs provide, to at least some extent, an enlightening counterbalance to their tough day-to-day realities, one that affords their lives a positive purpose and meaning. Mar, however, doesn’t investigate these notions, allowing them instead to hang in the air as just another wispy element of her experiential-minded portrait. Consequently, American Mystic proves merely a mildly interesting but cursory peek at peculiar fringe-dwellers.
American Mystic will play on April 22, 23, 25, and 30 as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. For more information click here.