Review: ‘Muskrat Lovely’

An utterly fascinating look at a joint muskrat skinning contest-cum-beauty pageant in Dorchester County, Maryland, "Muskrat Lovely" neither glorifies nor condescends to its oddly anomalous, two-sided subject which "all ties into one," as one beaming organizer puts it.

An utterly fascinating look at a joint muskrat skinning contest-cum-beauty pageant in Dorchester County, Maryland, “Muskrat Lovely” neither glorifies nor condescends to its oddly anomalous, two-sided subject which “all ties into one,” as one beaming organizer puts it. Shot in luminous Super-16mm, Amy Nicholson’s hour-long foray into rural Americana could hold its own theatrically either in a longer edit or else paired with a strong companion piece, and should wow at fests and on cable.

Interviews with the eight beauty contestants in their homes underline both the small-town insularity and the artless amiability of the girls. For some, the pageant represents the dream of a lifetime and the chance to emulate role models. Others just enjoy their time in the spotlight and the occasion to do something different and have fun.

As one high-schooler puts it, there is no glamour in Dorchester, since everyone shops at the same stores and wears the same clothes. Asked what makes them feel glamorous, the teen girls’ responses range from shopaholic wish lists to sleeping, tanning, singing in church, or spending time with horses.

As the girls show off their belly-button ring collections or paint one another’s toenails, a woman cradling a stuffed muskrat in her arms holds forth on the importance of these mammals to the region, and a motherly official, perched under a stuffed deer head, recounts the history of the pageant’s two tiaras and the wooden box that they came in (it’s almost as if Christopher Guest is hovering appreciatively somewhere in the background).

At the same time, wild shots of Dorchester County, featuring ravishing sunsets and “Ducks Cleaned” signs, imbue the film with uniquely specific local color.

Rehearsals for the “12-minute production number with no dancing,” as its choreographer April Reid describes it, alternate with lessons showing how to skin a muskrat so that the eyes stay in the hide.

Nicholson’s coverage of the “Miss Outdoors” pageant stresses the girls’ obvious enjoyment in putting on a show, mercifully (one must assume) eliding the talent competition. Great drama attends the narrowing of the field to the final five (although there are only eight, all told), the winner determined solely by her answer to the all-important question: How would she use her title to better some aspect of the natural resources of the region?

Nicholson pitilessly records each girl’s answer in real time. One of them flounders helplessly, babbling incoherently about the “Miss Outdoors” title and how it could somehow help the unfortunately named Blackwater Nature Preserve. Another happy finalist ingratiatingly opines that Dorchester County cannot be bettered — it is just perfect as is.

But probably the most mind-boggling moment of the film comes as one contestant earnestly proposes that scientists be consulted to see if geese “you knowing whatting” (i.e. pooping) in the water is causing the bay’s pollution, in which case hunting season could easily be extended to get rid of the problem.

Tech credits are pro all the way.

Muskrat Lovely

Production

A Myrtle and Olive production. Produced, directed by Amy Nicholson.

Crew

Camera (color, Super16mm-to-HD), Jerry Risius; editor, John Young; sound, Felix Andrew. Reviewed on DVD at Hamptons Film Festival (competing), Oct. 18, 2005. Running time: 57 MIN.

With

Shea Mills, Jessica Howell, Jesica Lord, Stephanie Mason, Lanai Willey, Michelle Scherr, Stephanie Elzey, Tiffany Brittingham, Cindy Paul.
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