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With: The Mosher Family
Written by: Michael Palmieri, Donal Mosher
Directed by: Michael Palmieri, Donal Mosher
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 80
Date: 06/01/2009
IMDB

October Country (2010)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Every Day Is Halloween

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

These days, the line between legitimate documentaries and crappy reality TV is a fine one, and if you watched only a few minutes of October Country, it might be difficult to say exactly which camp it belongs to. But the key to a legitimate documentary is that the filmmakers genuinely care about their subject matter; they're out to report on a situation rather than exploit it. If you give October Country enough of a shot, it becomes crystal clear that filmmakers Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher care about their subjects -- members of Mosher's own family -- and wish to present them as fallible, sad, hopeful human beings rather than as contestants or objects of ridicule.

The film takes place in Herkimer, New York. We slowly meet the members of the Mosher family. The patriarch is Don, a veteran of both Vietnam and the Gulf War. According to his wife Dottie, the wars made him hard and distant. He builds things in his workshop and acts according to his own rigid agenda. At the moment their granddaughter Daneal has just escaped an abusive relationship with her husband and is now trying to raise her baby daughter Ruby as a single mom. We learn that Daneal's mother, Donna, went through almost exactly the same situation at the same age. (We briefly meet Daneal's new boyfriend Johnny, and it's fairly clear she's making the same mistake again.)

Then we meet the troubled teenage foster child Chris, who lives with Dottie and Don. Though he claims they're his best and most stable foster family, he can't help shoplifting, burgling, getting high and selling drugs. Denise is Don's sister, and she is a witch with serious arthritis; she lives alone, pops her pills, collects unicorns and visits graveyards to speak with ghosts. Don hates her because she "doesn't contribute" and refuses to speak to her. But then we meet the ray of light: Daneal's younger sister Desi, who seems to have an insight into all this. She's cheerful and ready to avoid all the traps that the rest of her family has fallen into. She's incomparably wise for her age. ("They're retarded compared to me," she says matter-of-factly.) At the film's start, she prepares to go trick-or-treating on Halloween night and remarks that this might be her last year, as she's growing up.

The filmmakers helpfully provide as much of a portrait of Herkimer, an economically depressed area that has a single Remington plant as its place of employment, as well as a Wal-Mart (which no doubt ran other businesses into the ground). The Fourth of July fireworks take place in the Wal-Mart parking lot and one Mosher wryly jokes that she hopes the fireworks don't burn down the store. Perhaps saddest of all is watching young Desi playing on a rusty, crumbling, weed-infested playground. Yet, oddly, most of the family members still insist that this is their home; they wouldn't want to live anywhere else.

Much of the film takes place at Halloween. At one point, the trick-or-treating Moshers run into Chris, out with a friend. They have dressed as a wife-beater and a beaten wife, a costume that's so unfunny it's almost turns the corner to become funny again. But the climax of the film takes place at a Halloween party, which almost seems staged, but is so appropriate that it doesn't matter. This way, Dottie explains, all the family members can show up and pretend they're someone else. The ultimate difference between a real documentary and a TV reality show would have been in this party. In reality TV, the party would have been an explosion of personality clashes, but here, it's far more quietly revealing.

October Country unfolds subtly. At first we watch these characters deluding themselves, making mistakes, perhaps thinking we're better than they are, or wishing that we could somehow help. But what finally emerges is that, despite their endless array of hard luck, this family could be anyone's family. They love, and are loved, and they're human.

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