“Some of us fall by the wayside, and some of us soar to the stars.” So goes the circle-of-life wisdom from a certain pop Disney hit, but it could just as well be the mantra of Swiss helmer Nicolas Steiner’s poignantly down-to-earth graduation film, “Above and Beyond” — a mesmerizing plunge into the damaged psyches of five characters floating by on the margins of American society, from a couple scraping by in a Las Vegas drainage tunnel to the young woman determined to be among the first crew to colonize Mars. A perfect companion piece to the wave of post-apocalyptic stories flooding television and megaplexes, Steiner’s docu concentrates on five individuals who simply don’t fit into the modern world as we know it — a festival treasure that treats its subjects with a dignity that transcends judgment and a poetic sensibility that ranks it among the year’s most remarkable cinematic discoveries.
The latest — and best — in an unlikely subgenre of not-quite-documentaries to spring up around the desolate expanse beyond California’s Inland Empire, “Above and Below” delves into a patch of the American frontier that appears even less inhabitable now than it did in the time of Comanche-infested John Ford classics. Though too arid to sustain much life, these dried-up lakes and sun-scorched vistas offer fertile soil for the artistic-minded: a stomping ground where James Benning takes his Cal Arts classes to listen to the desert, or the backdrop for the likes of Alma Har’el (“Bombay Beach”) and Mike Ott (“Littlerock”) to blur the line between fact and fiction. It is here that the hippies in Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point” fled to escape and obliterate American culture.
So, while Steiner is hardly the first to plant his flag among these wind turbines and yucca palms, he brings a new perspective to a space that offers seemingly infinite opportunity for filmmakers to comment on the (d)evolution of the American Dream. Collaborating closely with d.p. Markus Nestroy on the film’s lyrical widescreen aesthetic, the director — a Fulbright Scholar who studied at the San Francisco Art Institute — brings an extraordinary visual regard to the various makeshift areas where his subjects (known only by their first names) have carved out unconventional living quarters.
Representing the “above” segment of the film’s title, April has enrolled in the Mars Desert Research Station, a remote scientific outpost in Utah, where students outfitted in simulation spacesuits prepare for life on the red planet. Like fellow vet Dave, the human tumbleweed who has commandeered an abandoned military bunker and adapted it to run on solar iwer, April served her country and now appears to be fleeing the life she knew before. The remaining three, likely-undocumented Lalo and homeless couple Rick and Cindy, have found temporary shelter “below” — like the mole people in Marc Singer’s “Dark Days” — living in Las Vegas’ system of flood tunnels, sneaking out to scavenge for supplies fated to wash away every time it rains.
Steiner is sparing with the characters’ backstories, forcing us to look past the stereotypical categories into which they obviously fit: illegal immigrant, crackhead, alcoholic, post-traumatic combat vet. In doing so, the film recovers a sense of their humanity. It gives them a voice, carving out room for each of the characters to make music (or at one point, for Cindy to recite Dale Wimbrow’s timeless ode to self-respect, “The Guy in the Glass”). They are survivors of a sort, the day-to-day uncertainty of their lives reflected in the film’s roller-coaster motif.
While the rat race marches on somewhere out of view, “Above and Below” emphasizes the other-worldliness of their routines, finding unexpected beauty in rituals that might otherwise seem pathetic. By intercutting April’s ethereal Mars walk with a quiet moment in the dark tunnel where Cindy admires the heavenly glow of a fiber optic lamp, Steiner suggests a moment of communion between these two souls — a link reinforced by Paradox Paradise’s haunting electronic score.
At nearly two hours, the film might strike some as overlong, and yet the edit finds so many masterful connections en route to its exhilarating climax that it’s easy to fall under the pic’s hypnotic spell. Though ostensibly objective, the film manages to anticipate certain scenes, possibly even going so far as to orchestrate others (including a mesmerizing ping pong ball montage). Observe Rick and Cindy long enough, and their encampment is sure to get washed out eventually, though there’s nothing verite about the scene in which Dave rolls a wheelbarrow full of rusted cans and empty beer bottles out to the desert, and the camera cranes up to read the message he has written in the dirt (to whom, God?).
To some extent, they all appear to be performing for the camera, and he obliges them, serving as a generous chronicler of characters who have otherwise removed themselves from society’s radar. Without the slightest sense of mockery, Steiner embraces the often-comedic details of their lives — similar to, yet gentler than the way someone like Errol Morris treats his misfits — while revealing the ways in which they seem to have their priorities straight. For instance, Dave never misses a sunset, and he sees beauty where other people don’t think to look: above and below.