"The Way We Get By" is a patriotic and somewhat unsettling look at aging in America.

Wearing its heart on its sleeve and everywhere else, “The Way We Get By” is an unabashedly patriotic, sentimental and somewhat unsettling look at aging in America, as experienced by three Maine seniors who spend their plentiful spare time greeting soldiers who have come home from war. Although the trio’s work as “troop greeters” is the film’s ostensible subject, their renewed and somewhat tenuous sense of purpose gives the doc its bite. The winner of several awards from top-flight festivals, film is guaranteed to elicit response when it airs on PBS later this year.

Focusing on three residents of Bangor, Maine — the first/last air stop for troops en route to/from Iraq and Afghanistan — “The Way We Get By” makes its essential point almost immediately: What Joan Gaudet, 75, Bill Knight, 86, and Jerry Mundy, 73, give to the returning soldiers at Bangor airport is more than equaled by what they get in return.

Gaudet (mother of helmer Aron), is an empty-nester with chronic back pain; Mundy still grieves for the son he lost when the boy was a child and spends a lot of time at the airport sitting in his truck with his dog; Knight, a widower with cancer, has let his house become overrun with cats and rubbish, but is a faithful, hand-shaking master of ceremonies as Marines come off the jetway.

What would the three do if they weren’t making soldiers feel more welcome? The answer looms over the film like snow clouds in Maine.

“The Way We Get By” doesn’t have a narrative arc to speak off and spins its wheels a bit, repeating the same points. It also appears to strain to remain apolitical. But not always. “When Mr. Bush said ‘mission accomplished,’ ” says Mundy, in one of the film’s rare editorial moments, “he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.”

Saying that, Mundy admits, makes him feel unpatriotic. But so does not saying it. The greeters support the troops regardless, but “we don’t necessarily support the reason they got sent there.”

Producer Gita Pullapilly, who doubles as interviewer, asks the tough questions. “Are you afraid of dying,” she asks Knight. “Are you afraid of dying alone?” Maybe, but he’s not afraid of the question, and given that Knight’s mortality is such a large issue, Pullapilly’s frankness is welcome.

Some of the more disturbing scenes, at least for this viewer, are of Knight’s home, which looks like it was decorated by dumpster. He does, during the film, start to fix things up, and one can’t help wonder whether, if not for the war and its participants — who often seem to live in an alternate universe to mainstream America — he would have let things go further to seed and squalor.

Production values are good, notably helmer Gaudet’s camerawork, which is first rate. “The Way We Get By” couldn’t have been easy to shoot, and Gaudet not only makes himself unobtrusive, he always seems to find the artistic angle to what’s going on in Bangor.

The Way We Get By

Production

An American Documentary/POV presentation. Produced by Gita Pullapilly. Executive producer, Warren Cook. Directed, written, edited by Aron Gaudet.

Crew

Camera (color, DV-to 35mm), Gaudet, Dan Ferrigan; music, Zack Martin; associate producer, Jessica Barnthouse. Reviewed at Hot Docs Film Festival (International Spectrum), Toronto, May 5, 2009. Running time: 83 MIN.
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