In Transit’s first scene features a young man telling a fellow passenger about a major life change toward which he’s heading on the train they’re both riding: He found himself unhappy with his current lifestyle and decided to take an opportunity offered by a relative to start afresh elsewhere. When he ecstatically rhapsodizes about how he’s seizing this “opportunity to change,” one might initially assume that the film is essentially offering its statement of intent; certainly, a subsequent anecdote from a Chinese woman who recently fled her home country to come see the U.S. buttresses an impression that this film will be a paean to the freedom and possibility of human connection that train travel represents. But as ever with the late documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, who co-directs here with Lynn True, Nelson Walker, David Usui, and Benjamin Wu, things aren’t quite so simple.
Filmed over multiple trips last year along Amtrak’s Empire Builder, the Pacific Northwest railway service that’s the United States’ busiest long-distance train route, In Transit is an evocation less of a romantic vision of ultimate freedom than of a more practical state of, well, transition. Energetic children try to make friends with other children to pass the time; a Native American man uses this train ride to “clear his head” before facing the possibility back home that he may be on the receiving end of a breakup; a pregnant woman who’s a few days overdue itches to get home in order to deliver her child safely with family and friends by her side. Though many of the passengers featured in the film have a physical destination, mentally and emotionally they’re still figuring out where they’re headed in their lives and how to live it. In Transit thus speaks to the unnerving feeling of instability that can accompany the initially thrilling feeling of liberation that comes with casting off safety nets and diving into life’s great unknown.
And yet, as In Transit suggests through its human mosaic of people and experiences, no one is really alone in this struggle; though the personal circumstances may be different, such existential quandaries are ultimately universal. Some of the most affecting moments in the film come from people—whether strangers or relatives—connecting with each other in moments of either commiseration or empathy. Most memorable in that regard are the conversations between an elderly man who knew Martin Luther King Jr. and a younger man who’s currently going through domestic troubles; the older man’s words of wisdom bring tears to the younger man’s eyes. But not all of the interactions documented throughout the film are so uplifting. At one point, after one passenger has talked about how she’s traveling around the world because she’s at a crossroads in her life, a fellow passenger launches into a generalized tirade about how being at that kind of crossroads is easy for those who come from a rich background, since they don’t necessarily have to worry about the vagaries of practical day-to-day living and can thus afford to have such adventures in the name of “finding oneself.” It’s the rare edgy moment in the film that puts the rest of the interviews and caught-on-the-wing moments in a broader perspective.
Overall, though, In Transit is essentially aspirational in nature. To that end, two figures in the film stand out. There’s the train conductor who dreamed of a life of constant travel while living in North Dakota, but didn’t realize until he took on this particular line of work that this was the way he would fulfill it. And then there’s the New York City-based photographer who’s seen taking photographs of both the scenery outside his window and of people such as the aforementioned pregnant woman. His isn’t only arguably the most poignant personal tale of the bunch (having suffered a heart attack recently, he believes this to be his last train ride before he dies), but the one that perhaps aligns most closely to the film’s makers. In Transit could be seen as a poetic encapsulation of Maysles’s own nonfiction art: Just as many of the featured passengers may not necessarily know where they’re headed in their lives, Maysles himself dared to make films without firm conclusions in mind, discovering them as he made them. As ever, he was more interested in the journey than in the destination; judging by this eloquent final testament, that openness toward the surprises of life and people remained heartrendingly constant until the very end.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 15—26.
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