Bright Leaves

"Essential"

Bright Leaves Review


Ross McElwee has an extraordinary knack for combining personal journey with factual material. Often a one-man crew, he shoots constantly in his life, slowly culminating bits and pieces that eventually lead to a documentary of events that inspired him to reach out further. His venerable work not only introduces an audience to intriguing new ideas they may not have known about otherwise, but are also set within a sympathetic context of his curiosity so that a more universal bond is formed. You are not a spectator so much as a participant, because he chooses themes that exhibit themselves in everyday life.

Bright Leaves takes us through the evolution of the tobacco industry, beginning with McElwee's own great grandfather, who owned and ran a plant. A theory emerges from his cousin, a film reel and photography collector, that the old movie Bright Leaf may have been inspired by the events of their mutual family background. In it, Gary Cooper plays a man who returns to his North Carolina home to avenge the loss of the family tobacco business to a ruthless tycoon.

McElwee goes about exploring the local lore, visiting the old residences of both family and competitors in what is quickly becoming a failing industry with anti-smoking laws and highly publicized health problems. Juxtaposed throughout are reflective sections with McElwee's son, attempting to establish a bond of where he comes from while respecting that his adolescent appreciations of skateboards will not coincide with his father's.

A thoughtful mix of humor, intelligence, and self-reflection is what makes McElwee's films such a joy to follow. Like his (unfortunately) more popular peer, Michael Moore, McElwee fully participates in every step of his work. You hear him talk off camera while shooting, and listen to a voice over that describes what propels him to his next subject. Unlike Moore, however, and happily so, McElwee chooses to view the entirety of a culture and how he fits into it, rather than to push a specific political point down your throat. The simple dialogue, ranging from storytelling to comic relief, brilliantly pulls the varying threads of history together. There's a deep respect for the population of his town of origin, much as he struggles with feelings of sustaining a lifestyle based on a harmful product.

Because he allows for sympathy for all those involved, the sick that repeatedly visited his late father, and those that have become patients of his brother, as well as those who have lived off their land for generations, McElwee creates a beautifully complex portrait of the community that helped raise him. Paralleled with his efforts at heritage discovery are the sections that show his son at different ages, underlying the compelling theme of just how we pass information and history on to our children, a subject so rarely captured with such delicate poignancy.

Bright Leaves blends nostalgia, economics, and personal reactions to new information at a perfect pitch that allows for laughter and deeply felt affection. McElwee is able to convey the hard-earned wisdom of appreciating a mostly forgotten past with an openness to evolve with what the future might hold. The result is a truly touching portrayal of remembering our feats as well as our mistakes, and growing with an always-changing culture that we can still look back on and learn from.

The DVD (finally!) includes a few minor extras.

Reviewed as part of the 2003 New York Film Festival.

Would rather be picking cotton.



Facts and Figures

Run time: 107 mins

In Theaters: Friday 8th October 2004

Distributed by: First Run Features

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Fresh: 49 Rotten: 8

IMDB: 7.1 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Ross McElwee

Producer: Ross McElwee

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