Like a family photo album that happens to be put together by an artist, Taylor Greeson’s tender and tragic “Meadowlark” demonstrates that autobiographical filmmaking can offer revelations and escape the traps of self-indulgence. Part of this stems from Greeson’s sheer humility, bordering on shyness, as he relates the twin dramas of the 1981 murder of his brother Charlie and his first love affair, as a boy, with a young man. Too close to art cinema for conventional doc distrib routes, pic will have a fine fest tour en route to classy cable outlets.
Greeson narrates in an intimate, conversational mode about the basics of his complicated Mormon family tree, as his four-times-married mother Julie had kids (Charlie the eldest, Amber the youngest) by three different husbands. After a steady montage of family photos, one pic, shot in 1981, is held onscreen at length: 12-year-old Greeson with 8-year-old Amber, Charlie’s friend Dwight and older teen Mike (Greeson’s first love), posing for Julie’s camera in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains.
Absent is Charlie, who was murdered, a day after the photo was taken, by Frank Fuhrmann on a road just outside Billings, Mont., where the family lived. Because Greeson’s first sexual experience and his worst personal tragedy occurred nearly simultaneously, he structures his film so that it fluidly alternates between the two experiences, one strangely resounding against the other.
Greeson was actually growing up with his father in Moore, Okla., when he visited his mom for the summer and had to share a bedroom with boarder Mike. Soon, Greeson describes, they fell into a sexual relationship that never once felt traumatizing to the boy at the time or the adult filmmaker today; later, in a stunning phone exchange, Mike (heard only on audio) is still hugely concerned that Greeson thinks he’s a freak or worse, despite Greeson’s attempts to convince him otherwise.
The filmmaker, with b.f. (and sound man) Seth Stewart, revisits Montana and the locations that were so crucial to him at the time of Charlie’s death, including the Beartooth range and the scene of the crime. (He even tries to simulate, with his camera, what he imagines was Charlie’s p.o.v. before the murder.) Also at the crime scene, witness Terrill Bracken describes what he saw, while prosecutors Brent Brooks and Dan Schwartz and Fuhrmann’s defense attorney, Sandy Selvey, relate the elements of the case.
But the facts are less telling in “Meadowlark” than the startling way Greeson marries selected images with the spoken facts. A different montage of photos, from the county coroner’s office, shows the terrible violence inflicted on Charlie. The film builds toward a quiet, chastening climax in which various theories about the circumstances of Charlie’s death are bandied about, with nothing resolved.
“Meadowlark” ends in mystery, and this beautifully rendered document-diary, made as Greeson’s Cal Arts thesis project, is all the more potent for it. By refusing to literally match his images with corresponding sound — an exception is a telling exchange between Julie and Amber, who bitterly blames her mom for Charlie’s death — Greeson compels the viewer to listen closely to the complex soundtrack, and the ideas and feelings expressed.
In a side note, the filmmaker indicates that his family wasn’t terribly religious, yet the film is bookmarked with various poetic passages from the Book of Mormon.