John Maringouin’s emotionally raw “Running Stumbled” makes the term “dysfunctional family” quaint and insufficient. Roughly 90% documentary and 10% scripted and/or pre-arranged, pic reps a remarkable filmmaking debut — as well as Maringouin’s stark attempt to come to terms with his father, Johnny Roe, a New Orleans artist and drug addict. Progressive-leaning fests would do well to program this unique item. Still, vid appears to be its next home, since potential distribs may dwell unfairly only on the work’s sordid and distressing elements as an excuse to pass.
A digital video phantasmagoria of disorienting stylistics and mind-altering imagery (with vid and Super 8 media getting a workout via pixilation and solarization-type processes), “Running Stumbled” nevertheless follows in a long American dramatic tradition of viewing the family as the center of the world and, in particular, of sons trying to fathom fathers and their legacy.
Like Jonathan Caouette’s similarly faux-primitive, self-made “Tarnation,” Maringouin focuses on his bizarre, sick family. But unlike Caouette, Maringouin chooses to not make the pic about himself and his own life (he hardly appears onscreen). Rather, he sets the film almost entirely in a few rooms in his dad’s New Orleans home and bravely drops the aud down into the muck of the bitter and unhinged lives of Roe and his common-law wife of nine years, Virgie Marie Pennoui, providing only dribbles of background among the pic’s 13 carefully selected chapters averaging about five minutes apiece.
Maringouin’s mom had fled Roe three decades before when Roe reportedly threatened to kill his family; father and son have been estranged since, and the filmmaker long ago dropped his surname. But rather than “Running Stumbled” featuring father-son dialogue leading toward some kind of reconciliation, the pic is jammed with corrosive husband-wife domestic sequences in which Roe and Pennoui rake each other over the coals.A pair of bookending chapters, shown in heavily filtered red tones, offer the pic’s only scripted sections. The first, at the beginning of the film but following a dizzying prelude in which Pennoui tells Roe it’s a miracle how well his son turned out, shows Maringouin arriving unannounced at the Roe’s home. Second bookend has the director telling Roe the extent of the angst-ridden motives behind his making the film. Pennoui is last seen being taken to the hospital (she has since been living in a mental ward), with the family house suffering a worse, pre-Katrina fate.
Roe’s art, a mediocre imitation of Picasso-meets-Braque Cubism, is his one refuge; Maringouin told critics post-screening that a different version of the film will have a coda that shows Roe resuming his painting.
Maringouin briefly escalates the pic’s craziness by including a motormouth neighbor of the Roe’s, Stanley Laviolette, who’s taking care of his elderly mother, and obsessing over the right set of prayers for her to recite.
Pic’s title derives from one of Roe’s many curious but somehow insightful remarks that “running stumbled is my middle name.” Much of the thickly accented dialogue is subtitled.
Visually dazzling and rough in equal measure, pic is edited (by Maringouin and Molly Lynch) to produce a nerve-wracking mood in which awful things could happen at any moment.