“Sherman’s March” helmer Ross McElwee makes another witty, thoughtful and illuminating visit to his Southern roots in “Bright Leaves.” A rewardingly personal docu in which the filmmaker deftly uses his specific family legacy as a jumping off point for wry ruminations on American history, the tobacco business, public health and cinematic license, this warmly engaging feature has a bright future indeed wherever documentaries are welcome on screens large and small.
Pic takes its title from the forgettable 1950 Warner Bros. melodrama “Bright Leaf,” directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Gary Cooper as a 19th century tobacco grower. Family legend has it that the Cooper character was based on the filmmaker’s great-grandfather, John McElwee, who after the Civil War, started a tobacco business with his friend Washington Duke and launched the brand Durham Bull, only to his lose his fortune after a personal falling out and bitter lawsuit with Duke. Latter went on to become one of the richest men in the U.S. and to found Duke U.
Heading from Boston to his childhood stomping grounds in North Carolina with the intent of pinning down the real life-reel life connection, McElwee takes his customary own sweet time about pursuing his putative goal. As ever, he’s happy to explore many back roads, which in this case help him draw a more detailed map of his ancestral territory and the checkered human experience that has resulted from the state’s dominant industry.
McElwee’s feelings about his birthplace are both affectionate and complicated, and he displays the good documentarian’s compulsion to turn over rocks to see what’s underneath. Contrasting the pleasant but modest house he grew up in to the 52-room Duke mansion nearby, McElwee, whose voice on the soundtrack is the viewer’s constant guide and companion, ruefully notes that his family’s home was always referred to as “Buck Duke’s outhouse.”
Gingerly and without any lecturing, he then ventures into the troubling legacy of tobacco, speculating about his great-grandfather’s role in this as he visits with friends and other locals who have battled cancer or have had relatives die of it, chats with current tobacco farmers as well as with pals whose resolve to quit smoking always comes up short. Even though, as a filmmaker, he is a black sheep in a family of doctors, McElwee is no crusader or medical statistician, just an informed and droll man trying to weigh how much responsibility he and his family should feel for the ill-effects his great-grandfather unknowingly helped foist upon the world.
Remembering the quest he is on, McElwee tracks down “Bright Leaf” costar and Gary Cooper paramour Patricia Neal at the local DoubleTake Film Festival. Graciously consenting to an interview, the husky-voiced Neal is entertainingly expansive but completely unrevealing. More to the point is Marian Fitz-Simmons, the 90-ish widow of the writer of the “Bright Leaf” novel, who rocks McElwee’s world by stating that the tome’s hero wasn’t based on John McElwee or anyone else. “I can promise you it ain’t so,” she insists.
This leads the documaker to further thoughts, as well as to a climactic visit to the annual Tobacco Festival, which features high school beauty queens in a parade dedicated to the glories of the state’s lucrative crop. But demonstrating how perceptions, and the South, are changing, McElwee notes that this was the last time the event was staged under its old name, as it is henceforth being called the Farmers’ Festival.
With his engagingly low-key, sometimes self-deprecating commentary, McElwee welcomes the viewer into a homespun but by no means corny comfort zone where issues big and small, personal and historical, can be discussed in the same relaxed, free-associative manner. While not as big, far-ranging and downright funny an odyssey as was “Sherman’s March,” “Bright Leaves” is nonetheless a worthy companion piece, one that gets incidental comic mileage out of film historian/theoretician Vlada Petric, who makes his extended appearance here into a “kinesthetic” experience as he expounds upon the importance of movement in cinema.
Pic’s production values accurately reflect the Homemade name of McElwee’s production banner, and blow-up to 35mm from Super 16 is super.