Film Review: Darwin

Atmospheric documentary set in Death Valley is surprisingly captivating.

If Darwin, California didn’t exist, David Lynch would have had to invent it. But the town not only exists, it thrives, despite its tortuous history, desert surroundings and tiny population. Nick Brandestini’s graceful coverage of the people and the place in Darwin has garnered film festival attention and good word of mouth, and the U.S. release, however limited, should continue the positive exposure.

Brandestini takes us to the remote outpost (pop. 35) and immediately introduces us to the residents, including Monty, a miner, and his wife, Nancy, who have been living in Darwin since the 1950s; Hank and Connie, more recent “emigrés”; Susan, the postmaster; a transgender youth, Ryal, and his partner, Penny, and several others.

We also learn about Darwin’s history, including its Wild West origins during the post-Civil War gold rush days, how it became a major locale for silver and lead mining, but then how it faded and became a ghost town. Today, the inhabitants have no real government or place of worship and are completely dependent upon a waterline from a mountain where the government conducts secret weapons tests. Yet, somehow, those who remain in Darwin seem quite content with their lot. Outsiders may not understand why they stay, but once one gets to know Darwin’s residents, their lives make more sense.

Darwin was named after Darwin French, a doctor and adventurer, but the Darwinian (as in Charles Darwin) theme of the survival of the fittest comes to mind as we learn about the troubled, even tragic pasts of the eclectic dwellers and how they overcame odds either because they moved to Darwin or in spite of their living in the area. There exist a sadness and strangeness about the people, but really no more so than with the denizens of any other larger city.

Brandestini’s approach to his subjects is intimate yet respectful, not unlike Lee Anne Schmitt’s California Company Town, a 2008 ode to several other California locations abandoned by large industries. Both films document the dark side of the American dream and are beautifully composed (between interviews) with still long-shots of desolate landscapes.

The only flaw of Brandestini’s film appears to be the director’s mysterious decision to focus on only the “white trailer trash” of the location; a 2010 census report indicates that other races live in Darwin—though perhaps they didn’t wish to participate, or changes in the community occurred after filming stopped in 2009.

In any case, Darwin finds unexpected inspiration in a group of people who live against the odds. Like the smiling Buddha that adorns one of the trailer lawns, they will charm you for sure.