Having wrapped his Texas trilogy — “The Passage,” “Low Tide” and “Stop the Pounding Heart” — Italian chronicler of the American margins Roberto Minervini heads next door to Louisiana, where he finds a fresh group of desperados to observe in “The Other Side,” a soul-draining, feature-length look at the bastard stepchildren of the American Dream. By immersing himself among drug addicts, anti-government zealots and various other extreme personalities, the helmer manages to capture a troubling side of the country’s identity that locals prefer to ignore. Meanwhile, foreign audiences will be free to confirm their worst assumptions about America’s character, especially as it relates to the Second Amendment, in this loosely structured and frequently off-putting documentary, which is sure to follow the earlier triptych’s well-traveled festival footsteps.
Whereas Minervini’s previous pics seemed to radiate a warm empathy toward his subjects — perhaps merely a manifestation of his open-minded curiosity toward the extreme cultural difference he found peering into the less explored corners of Southern culture — “The Other Side” feels far more shocking in its portrayal. One moment, we see a pregnant woman mainlining heroin in a bar bathroom, and the next, she’s spreading her legs for dollar tips on the strip-club stage. Sure, these things happen, but to what extent can they be considered representative of the microcosm under scrutiny?
Sadly, as exploitative as individual moments feel, the casualness with which his cast — none of them actors — allow this behavior to be seen on-camera suggests that the depravity is hardly exceptional. Still, d.p. Diego Romero Suarez-Llanos’ style seems so much richer than typical fly-on-the-wall coverage in the way it masks the film’s nonfiction status. Though the characters never directly acknowledge that they’re being observed, a number of scenes feel constructed especially for the camera’s benefit, lending a certain illusion of narrative, when what we’re actually seeing is a collection of repeated actions — a depressing pattern of behavior.
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Minervini’s main character, Mark, is a stringy small-time drug dealer with more tattoos than teeth, who passes his days doing odd jobs, getting high with his g.f. Lisa and breaking into empty buildings. Mark manages to pick up a few bucks here and there doing honest work, but does better selling heroin to friends and family.
As a criminal who’s deferred his prison sentence until his elderly mother passes away, he’s lost the right to vote — and to bear arms — putting him on “the other side” from those allowed to defend themselves from a greedy government. The movie doesn’t delineate particularly well between these two sides, but the idea seems to be that rural Louisiana divides into two groups: They’re either shooting up targets at the gun range, or shooting up heroin in the privacy of their homes (or smoking crack, drinking beer, etc. to obliterate the burden of real life).
“We done paid our dues,” drawls a drunken oldster known as “Uncle Jim,” who never once appears sober in the film. Like virtually all of the people Minervini opts to include, he’s an inherently pitiful figure: a walking ghost in one of the country’s most poverty-challenged communities, overlooked by a system he considers to be more interested in propping up Wall Street than supporting the so-called “common folk” — although if Jim and his peers are common, then the United States has bigger problems than it’s willing to admit. This microcosm could almost be a kindred spirit to the one presented in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” minus all the agitated camera tremors, had the characters been exclusively white and too stoned to bother with even a pair of bright orange underpants.
For the first half of the movie, “The Other Side” observes Mark and Lisa’s unconventional relationship, a romance which shows as much disdain for wardrobe as it does the law (with graphic depictions of sex and drug use along the way), alternating with long scenes in which barely lucid characters spew racist and otherwise disrespectful rhetoric about President Obama.
But that’s mild compared to the militia group that becomes the film’s primary focus once Mark mysteriously exits frame: These guys have more money, lots of fire power and a downright frightening agenda. They’re convinced that Obama plans to declare martial law any day in Louisiana, and they retaliate by taking their machine guns out to the range and blasting away at effigies of the president.
It’s enough to make Americans feel ashamed of their countrymen, which is evidently the opposite reaction from what Minervini intended. In one scene, tears well in Jim’s eyes as he reads the poem stuck to his fridge: “To all those who feel worthless,” it begins. That may as well be the film’s own dedication line, miraculously managing to find a serene beauty amid so much desperation and squalor, honoring its characters without letting them off easy.