Film Review: October Country

Documentary focuses on the despair of one extended family, but might as well represent an uncompromising, microcosmic study of American poverty.

October Country, the latest documentary in the style of the groundbreaking PBS series “American Family” (1973), is both stark and stylish at the same time. Directors Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher present the problems of Mosher’s family in a straightforward manner while finding a lyrical way to frame their stories.

October Country isn’t “feel-good” fare, but it might catch on from word of mouth and positive reviews. The film doesn’t have quite the same dramatic hook as Capturing the Friedmans (even though incest is part of the Mosher story), so audience interest might be more muted than for that controversial 2003 film.

Donal Mosher’s home movies were the inspiration for October Country, co-directed by music-video and commercial director Palmieri. This first-time collaboration is surprisingly controlled yet affecting. As with Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries, the camera places its subjects under a cinematic microscope yet somehow never seems to intrude: Mostly seen in their Mohawk, New York home, the Mosher family talks and acts in a natural, unself-conscious way despite the fact they are all revealing dark secrets from their pasts, including stories of child and spousal abuse, teen pregnancy, foster care gone awry, and the lingering effects of war on the patriarch of the family. Following the Moshers from one Halloween to another, the film presents the American Dream as a nightmare, appropriately bookended by the pagan holiday.

Of the Wiseman canon, October Country most resembles Belfast, Maine (1999), which is also set during the autumnal Halloween season and also reveals the dark side of Norman Rockwell culture. However, unlike most Wiseman films, October Country is much shorter (only 80 minutes long) and embroidered with a faster editing style and a haunting though gentle musical score (Wiseman films never use background music). The most common factor, though, is the willingness of those on camera to discuss their problems. Will their matter-of-fact confessions help others? It is hard to know, but at least the film doesn’t seem voyeuristic, which was part of the difficulty with Must Read After My Death (2007), a similar study of a more middle-class family, which uses the audiotapes and home movies of the filmmaker’s late grandmother to tell its story. (What is never clear is how much the grandmother would have wanted the entire world to witness her recorded breakdown.)
Profound or not, October Country will stay with viewers for some time.