2013 // USA // Josh Barrett and Marc Menchaca // November 23, 2013 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Landmark Tivoli Theatre)
[Full Disclosure: This Is Where We Live was one of five debut feature films in the juried New Filmmaker’s Forum competition at the 2013 St. Louis International Film Festival. I served on the NFF jury, which ultimately awarded the NFF Emerging Director Award to This Is Where We Live directors Josh Barrett and Marc Menchaca on November 24, 2013. This review is intentionally biased to provide an affirmative, constructive evaluation of the film.]
The nickel summary of Josh Barrett and Marc Menchaca’s debut feature, This Is Where We Live, creates a very specific set of expectations. In the hill country of central Texas, thirtysomething handyman Noah (Menchaca) is abruptly pulled into the lives of the troubled Sutton family to work as a caretaker for young adult son August (Tobias Segal), whose cerebral palsy has rendered him nearly immobile and non-verbal. As one might expect, bonds are formed, friction arises, and wisdom is attained. It’s the sort of story that naturally lends itself to cloying, faux-uplifting cinema, palatable to middlebrow art house audiences and completely unmemorable.
What makes This Is Where We Live so distinctive is its tart refusal to fulfill these expectations. The film consistently avoids cliche in favor of a nuanced, authentic portrait of a hard-bitten, blue collar Middle America. Much of the credit is due to Menchaca’s script, with a story assist provided by Barrett. Where some screenwriters might be tempted to subvert the well-worn formulae of indie drama by exploding it, the writers of This Is Where We Live take a gentler approach. The film refuses to confine its characters within tired archetypes, and favors a naturalistic story progression over contrived plot developments.
A case in point is Noah himself, who in a lesser feature would be a colossal jerk who discovers his capacity for selfless compassion by tending to August’s needs. In fact, Noah’s good-natured character is apparent from the outset, as evidenced by his joking manner with August and his unflinching acceptance of matriarch Diane’s (C.K. McFarlane) job offer. Yet Noah is no angel: frequently frustrated by August's actions and his own inability to communicate effectively with the man, their relationship is a fitful and uneasy one. Although the handyman’s time with the Suttons throws new light on his own troubled history, Noah’s personal journey is not the most conspicuous aspect of the film’s story. Rather, This Is Where We Live is primarily a tale of clashing personalities and assumptions, where the dynamics between the abled and disabled—and between family and outsider—play a crucial role.
Another prominent example of the film’s heterodox qualities is long-suffering Diane, who would normally be the most sympathetic character in the story. She’s a pummeled and exhausted woman, drowning under the demands of her afflicted son, a husband (Ron Hayden) suffering from early dementia, and a listless, combative daughter (Frankie Shaw). To these burdens are added Diane's own secret help problems and the sadly typical economic hardships of small town life. Yet while Barrett and Menchaca present Diane as pitiable, she is a hardly a self-sacrificing saint. Her dyspeptic, stodgy, and over-protective tendencies set her into conflict with her family and with Noah, whose almost naive eagerness to make August happy leads him to stray from his caregiver duties into the questionable role of best pal. Diane watches over her son jealously, and is loathe to allow anyone else decide what is best for her family.
This sort of off-center approach to what could have been a irksome, saccharine tale is essential to the appeal of This Is Where We Live. Perhaps it’s a bit of a backhanded compliment to assert that a work’s finest achievement rests on what it doesn’t do, but there is still plenty to admire in the film’s acting and aesthetics. Segal, who does not have cerebral palsy, dives into the role of August with ferocity and delicacy in equal measure, without making the film all about his necessarily splashy performance. (August’s condition is not the central pillar of the film, but more akin to the star around which the story's events orbit. The distinction is vital.) The rest of the cast is also in fine form, with Hayden in particular making a strong impression. Cinematographer Ryan Booth provides the Lone Star landscape with a glint of loveliness to offset all the dust and peeling paint, recalling a lo-fi version of Bradford Young’s recent work on another Texas tale, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
The missteps in This Is Where We Live are mostly at the high-altitude level. It’s hard to find fault with any scenes when they are considered individually, but as a whole the assembled film has a certain shagginess to it, and an unfortunate habit of repeating itself. Although it is already lean at 92 minutes, a bit of bloody-mindedness in the editing room could have made the film positively hum. At times, Barrett and Menchaca treat some aspects of the story with such a light touch that it seems less like dog-eared realism and more like gratuitous elision. In particular, Noah’s past remains a foggy cluster of grief and resentments, which wouldn’t be a concern if the film didn’t regard that past as an essential aspect of his character. These complaints aside, This Is Where We Live is a remarkably strong first-time feature. A consistently surprising and carefully considered work, it reveals that complex human drama is still out there, waiting to be discovered in the substrate of rural America. It feels true, which is a rarified thing in an increasingly flattened and unadventurous topography of indie filmmaking.