Filmmaker Celesta Davis, her mother and her sister confront the man who molested the two younger women a quarter-century earlier. Results comprise a potent and discomfiting document that will trigger strong reactions. Further fest play, telecast and even possible limited theatrical exposure are signaled.
Those who couldn’t handle the uncertainty of guilt and lack of emotional catharsis in “Capturing the Friedmans” will find no such obstacles in “Awful Normal.” Filmmaker Celesta Davis, her mother and her sister confront the man who molested the two younger women a quarter-century earlier. Results comprise a potent and discomfiting document that will trigger strong reactions. Further fest play, telecast and even possible limited theatrical exposure are signaled; long shelf life in educational/therapeutic use is also likely.Feature will strike many as an inspiring if punishing act of personal courage. At the same time, for those with a more distanced perspective on the No. 1 hot-button psychiatric issue of recent times — childhood sexual abuse — pic may also bring up another very contempo concern: Namely, people who feel compelled to thrust their emotional lives into highly public (i.e. camera) space. Starting with a 1975 home movie, pic mostly limits itself to period of a few days when Davis, her elder sister Karen (now a wife and mother) and their mother Ellen execute a long thought out plan to hopefully exorcise demons that have been festering for many years. The Davises were once very close to another family with similarly aged children; in ’78 that latter clan’s husband/father Alan exposed himself to little Karen, and coerced oral sex from Celesta (age 5). Mr. and Mrs. Davis (the former now deceased) soon found out about the incidents, but rather than calling the police, they agreed to speak no more of the matter so long as Alan sought counseling. To the girls’ dismay, the two families continued to socialize — as if everything was “normal” — for some time afterward. Feeling incapable of trust or relationship intimacy in her adult life, Celeste seems the main instigator and reason for trio’s seeking out the now-retired, divorced Alan. All still live in the same suburban area (not designated here); at the very least, Celeste hopes facing her erstwhile abuser will reduce her terror of running into him in daily life (as happened a couple years earlier). First, the three women look up his ex-wife Marilyn. Over dinner they discover that latter’s own daughter Rebekah knows nothing about her father’s abuse history; she doesn’t believe she was molested, but then she remembers nothing at all before age 8. Even more suspiciously, her brother is currently in prison — indicted on 12 counts of child molestation. Next day the Davises “stake out” Alan’s senior apartment complex, first finding him not at home, then waiting hours for his return. Once approached, he’s delighted by the reunion, then — to his credit — willing to frankly discuss and accept all blame for the original incidents, on-camera. (There’s a brief period when the screen goes black but audio stays on, as Alan describes his version of the actual acts.) He claims he wasn’t a “career abuser,” and didn’t molest his own children. In what is, on the whole, a surprisingly civil discussion, he doesn’t try to defend himself beyond saying that at the time he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. Sexual abuse was far enough off the radar in 1978 that a counselor consulted by the Davises admitted he’d had no training whatsoever on the topic. The charged if polite meeting does have desired cathartic effect for Celeste; 18 months later, coda finds her mental health much-improved in general. Simply but effectively assembled, with blackouts separating sequences, good verite lensing and no added music, “Awful Normal” packs considerable intensity into a brief runtime. Still, some viewers may find impact compromised by queasy reaction to the voyeurism/exhibitionism inherent in an aspiring filmmaker blurring lines between private therapy, public accusation and career opportunity.