Poker-faced mockumentary “Janeane From Des Moines” centers on an evangelical Christian and avid conservative who might easily pass as a real person — and indeed does, in the company of various GOP presidential hopefuls during last year’s Iowa Republican caucuses. Grace Lee’s film can be billed (or dismissed) as a stunt, but it admirably refuses to go the predictable route of “punking” the candidates for easy satire or cheap laughs. Instead, it provocatively features a fictive, downwardly mobile citizen trying to get hard answers from real-life candidates regarding what they’ll do in office to help needy supporters like herself.
The pic, which opens in October in New York, obviously needs to get out fast to remain relevant, with its best chances resting on a multiplatform release that trumpets its newsworthiness on what continue to be some of the key campaign issues.
Janeane (played by Jane Edith Wilson, in reality an actress and religious liberal who’s run church programs offering direct assistance to the poor) is a 47-year-old wife and mother living in her “dream home.” But lately the dream has palled — she’s losing work hours as a home health caregiver; trucker husband Fred (Michael Oosterom) fears for his job; and for the first time, they’re behind on mortgage payments. Another problem, though one she’s so far oblivious to, is that her incessant religious/political proselytizing has begun alienating everyone around her.
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When we meet Janeane, however, things haven’t reached a crisis point yet, and she’s very excited about all the Republican politicking that will take place in her key election state over the next months. This seemingly nondescript woman doesn’t shrink from pushing between reporters to ask candidates her own questions. She starts out smitten with Michelle Bachmann (with whom she scores a one-on-one diner chat), then is drawn to others seeking Tea Party-sympathetic voters like herself, notably Rick Perry and Mitt Romney.
The questions, however, get increasingly personal and desperate as Janeane’s life falls apart. Fred gets laid off; their finances become dire; a health scare she’s kept secret becomes more worrisome as her local hospital and longtime doctor flatly refuse treatment without insurance, ultimately forcing her through the doors of that “murder factory,” Planned Parenthood.
If this last irony is perhaps a little too neat, so is the turn that sees Fred leaving her in a fashion that all-too-conveniently underlines another fault-line in GOP social-agenda rhetoric.
But co-writers Lee and Wilson (allowing for the pic’s largely unscripted nature) are careful not to stack the deck too high, or let the professional thesps tip their hands when speaking with the candidates. For the most part, “Des Moines” is naturalistic enough to convince some viewers that it really is a documentary. It also avoids becoming overtly preachy while scoring some interesting points regarding conservative hypocrisy.
There’s a telling scene where the women in Janeane’s prayer group prove more discomfited than helpful once she needs the kind of support a quick homily can’t provide.
After the amusing goof of the personal docu “The Grace Lee Story” and so-so narrative comedy “American Zombie,” Lee has arrived at a happy medium that blends fictive and nonfiction elements to pointed results. Packaging is pro, while maintaining the sometimes artificial, sometimes unfaked rough edges of documentary spontaneity.