Bruce & Me

"Bruce & Me" speaks a universal language while focused on the specifics of a unique father-daughter relationship. Helmer Oren Siedler's efforts to reunite with her unrepentantly roguish father should fascinate anyone who has ever lunged at the real or perceived chance to make things right with a distant parent.

An absorbing first-person doc with commercial potential, “Bruce & Me” speaks a universal language while focused on the specifics of a unique father-daughter relationship. Helmer Oren Siedler’s efforts to reunite with (or at least comprehend) her unrepentantly roguish father, a career con man and white-collar criminal, should fascinate anyone who has ever lunged at the real or perceived chance to make things right with a distant parent. Subject matter could generate the kind of free publicity — feature stories, talkshow appearances, etc. — needed to push the doc out of arthouses and into megaplexes.

Serving as lenser, narrator and on-camera interrogator, Siedler grabs interest with a brisk look at her untidy life with (and without) her father.

Bruce, a charming outlaw, wooed Naomi, rebellious daughter of an Orthodox Jewish family, and married her during the’60s. But by the time their daughter Oren was born in 1968, Naomi had already soured on Bruce’s criminal lifestyle. (A specialist in car theft, credit-card scams and similar nonviolent offenses, Bruce rationalizes past and recent crimes as attacks on “banks and corporations.”)

When she was 4 years old, little Oren accompanied Naomi when Mom left the U.S. After Naomi established a Buddhist retreat center in Australia with a new significant other, Oren spent the rest of her childhood commuting between continents. Occasionally, during visits to Dad, she had to cover his tracks when inquisitive lawmen came calling.

After locating well-preserved sixtysomething Bruce at his secluded, rural home in an undisclosed U.S. location, Oren sets about asking why her dad did the things he did. Bruce appears mildly amused as he tolerates his daughter’s intrusion but remains emotionally guarded even as he talks about their shared past and his current life.

These days, Oren notes, Bruce steals just enough to support a frugal lifestyle. (He proudly displays a cache of credit cards hidden in his barn.) And he’s ready to settle down with Fatima, his longtime Cuban girlfriend, who’s younger than Oren (and still lives in Cuba).

“Bruce & Me” sustains a satisfying mix of deadpan humor, heartfelt emotion and wistful amazement as it charts a circuitous journey toward understanding. Pic often is laugh-out-loud funny — when Oren waxes nostalgic about her father’s larcenous preference for Volkswagens, Bruce admits he sought those cars only because they were very easy to launder — and manages once or twice to be genuinely chilling. (Bruce recalls a brief ’70s stopover at San Francisco headquarters of the infamous Rev. Jim Jones.)

Other highlights include side trips to Cuba to visit Fatima, where Oren shoots surreptitiously to revealing effect, and the home of Bruce’s feisty mother, who voices strong disapproval of her son’s activities.

Pic feels incomplete only because a few seemingly important people (such as Bruce’s brother and Naomi’s father) are fleetingly referenced but never fully described, much less interviewed.

In the end, Bruce remains a charming enigma, which makes “Bruce & Me” all the more intriguing.

Tech values are surprisingly polished.

Bruce & Me

Australia-Canada

Production: A Films Transit Intl. presentation of an Outlaw Pictures production in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corp., Life Network, Discovery Health Channel, Independent Film Channel Canada and Finnish Broadcasting Co. Produced by Oren Siedler, Ed Barreveld. Directed, written by Oren Siedler.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Siedler; editor, Ricardo Acosta; music, Ken Myhr; sound (Dolby Digital), Daniel Pellerin. Reviewed at Nashville Film Festival, April 19, 2005. Running time: 82 MIN.

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