Hot Docs 2015: Jesus Town, USA Review

Canadian Spectrum

Billie Mintz and Julian T. Pinder’s Jesus Town, USA is a light-hearted look at Holy City’s historic passion play, ‘The Prince of Peace’. An on-going open-air performance that began in the 1930s, the play is the legacy of a small, Oklahoma town where residents, largely amateur performers, turn out to put on a live show.

The film opens with an introduction to the town of Medicine Park and its residents, gradually shifting focus to Zack Little, an awkward, corpulent man auditioning to portray Jesus Christ in a truly wondrous example of casting against type.  While the first act of the film quickly and efficiently showcases the idiosyncratic nature of the men and women behind the production, the latter part of the film detours somewhat by focusing on Little and his deep, dark secret, which may prevent him from donning the white robe and red sash of the Christ character in the play.

This detour is not only a narrative and thematic departure but jarringly formal one as well; whereas the early scenes of the film appear to capture the action in candid, conventional documentary fashion, a good deal of the latter half seems to have been staged or recreated for the camera. This includes the use of crane shots and coverage of scenes (through placement, use of tripods, and staging) that would be unlikely to have been shot without some direct intervention on the filmmakers’ part.

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The film, striking a decidedly comedic – and somewhat vaudevillian in tone – betrays a contrivance in these staged scenes that is difficult for the viewer to overcome. The delivery is often flat and ostensibly rehearsed, creating a gap of credulity to the subjects and overall narrative. Granted, it offers a parallel to the flat, often wooden performances of the play within the play – itself a contrived narrative – but does little to create an emotional response in the viewer. A dauntless experiment in cinema, essentially blurring the lines between documentary and fiction narrative, that seems misguided and ultimately alienating.

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