Helmed by American Splendor directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, Cinema Verite is a finely polished dramatization of the making of the landmark 1973 PBS miniseries An American Family, during which the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California allowed a camera crew access to their personal lives for months on end with unparalleled levels of intimacy. At that point in time, such a voyeuristic approach to documenting the personal realm was considered controversial, even unethical; fast-forward to the present-day glut of reality-TV whoredom and it’s easy to look back on the miniseries with fondness for the way producer Craig Gilbert sought to find the unstated truths lurking in American society.
Selected by producer Craig Gilbert (here portrayed by James Gandolfini) for both their nuclear-family surface appeal and their potential for volatile TV drama, the Louds proved a worthy investment: During production, Bill and Pat Loud’s (Tim Robbins and Diane Lane) 22-year marriage ended when Pat asked Bill to move out after having confirmed suspicions of his serial cheating. Much more happened in the lives of the Louds as presented over the 12 episodes of that series (whittled down from over 300 hours of footage), and Cinema Verite would likely have you know it but for, ironically, the issue of time. At only a scant 90 minutes, this film has the impossible task of compacting years of events into the equivalent of a pop song, and it manages to do so with skill and even some nuance, but at the necessary expense of the much greater intricacy that this story deserves.
Conspicuously shortchanged is the story of the Louds’ son Lance (Thomas Dekker), whose national coming out is never acknowledged beyond a general air of understanding. By itself, such casual acceptance encapsulates the qualities that made the Louds such a progressive cultural element, but Cinema Verite primes you for the sting of inevitable controversy only to skip the beat. In this way, the film streamlines the collective story, pushing enough secondary characters to the sidelines to create a convenient almost-romantic triangle.
Accepting these limitations as a creative necessity makes it easier to enjoy Cinema Verite in the moment, but it proves no less satisfying in the end, so it’s best to focus on the real standouts here: the excellence of the casting and performances. Self-congratulatory opening and closing split screens make known the similarity between the celebrity performers and their real-life counterparts; looks notwithstanding, these TV and movie vets fashion thoughtful, flesh-and-blood individuals whose efforts at achieving happiness seem locked in a perpetual reach for self-awareness. Too bad they’re nearly wasted in this hour and a half of paint-by-colors television.