A stranger-than-truth tale both amusing and appalling, Michael Chandler’s docu “Knee Deep” pieces together the circumstances that led a 22-year-old Maine man to plot the murder of his mother — with general community reaction in the realm of, “Too bad he missed.” Unremarkable in its competent assembly, but with the kind of lurid story and colorful real-life characters that immediately hook attention, the feature is fit for fests, docu spotlights and tube sales; small-scale theatrical exposure is possible.
Josh Osborne dropped out of school in the 6th grade to work the family farm with his dad, and still doesn’t regret it, despite the grueling labor and grim financial prospects. Osborne never wanted another life, and his father fully expected him to continue on the same property he’d inherited from his own pere.
But Osborne senior fell apart when wife Janette — remembered as a cold, abusive mother and derelict housekeeper by Josh and his sister Julie — left husband and son alone on the farm, moving to Colorado. The abandoned spouse simply gave up, let his health deteriorate, and finally died.
Josh had set up house with new girlfriend Donna — whose facile but highly untrustworthy version of events here is a big part of the pic’s appeal — when mom suddenly moved back in. Her purposes were unclear until she announced she was going to sell the farm to developers and evict her own son, leaving him without property, funds or prospects.
The community of Farmington is well etched as the kind of dying-out, depressed agricultural heartland where folks are loyal if sometimes ornery (“I’d rather put in a hard day’s work (alone) than deal with people,” one farmer says), and education is often sacrificed to never-ending chores.
Josh certainly isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer; it seems he’d discussed the possibility of bumping off ma with half the town. When the deed was actually attempted — and bungled — there was no question whodunit. (Well, actually, there still is: Now-estranged Josh and Donna offer contradictory stories; both served two-year sentences on charges reduced from attempted murder.)
Seen just briefly in public appearances at the courthouse and elsewhere, Janette refused to participate in the docu, but becomes all the more vivid for being a shadow figure. “Knee Deep” surprises in how much sympathy we end up feeling for the uncomplicated, good-natured Josh, robbed of his birthright by a seemingly selfish parent. There’s a real poignancy when Chandler’s camera captures the Osborne home and barn being razed to make room for a luxury condo development, one more nail in the coffin of Maine’s traditional rural life.
Helmer manages to find a certain “Fargo”-esque humor here — not so difficult, given local characters like “the Pie Lady,” let alone Donna, who’s like a character out of old hicksploitation pics. Only misstep is the overt jokiness of Blake Leyh’s tuba-oom-pah-ing score, which strikes a slightly condescending note the pic otherwise avoids.