The story of Vivian Maier seems almost impossible to believe in the modern digital age, but in John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s exceptionally researched labour of love documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, the concept of a person’s double life takes on a deeper emotional meaning than that of a simple, unsolved mystery. It’s a wonderful look at art history, personal demons, the concept of creating honest art, and the secrets people keep from the world for sometimes unexplainable personal reasons.
Heralded as a masterful street photographer of the 20th Century after her death, Vivian Maier’s exquisite snapshots of human life brimmed with beauty, compassion, and sometimes the subtle ugliness of human nature. Her focus lied in whatever captured her fancy that day, but with absolutely no formal training and even less desire to share her work with the world, Maier was still as master at creating emotional snapshots that contained a great deal of emotion and a masterful understanding of composition. Her work would have never been discovered had it not been for Maloof’s curiosity in purchasing a lot of negatives from an auction for a book he had been working on.
Maloof (who tells most of his part of the story on camera in a disarmingly confessional way) and Siskel search for answers about Maier’s mysterious background. The former nanny and housekeeper worked for a pre-fame Phil Donahue (and for many other families in the Chicago area), constantly tried to hide her true identity, and was a pain in the ass to as many as she was beloved. But none of those people knew that the hoarding Maier had also shot thousands of rolls of undeveloped film and had a stash of over 150 home movies.
A compelling untold story told in a respectful and on point manner, the mystery of Maier’s true identity informs the journey of the person making the film. Part of the joy in watching Finding Vivian Maier is watching just how excited Maloof gets at learning more about this subject that has since inspired him to do greater things with her work. It’s not only the unmasking of a heretofore unknown talent, it’s watching the maturation of an artist before one’s eyes. It’s masterfully constructed (with a stellar musical score to support) and while the film focuses predominantly on the positive aspects of Maier’s life, it gets surprisingly dark as it goes on when her own family and her obvious predilection for hoarding get looked at a bit more closely.
It’s more than just one portrait of an unheralded artist, but rather the only one, and it’s doubtful that another would be needed any time soon given how thorough this one turned out. The tone of the film is so definitive and assured that there will likely never need to be another look at her life than this. It might be the first time a documentary about an artist has gotten everything right on the first try.