The places we call home shape us almost as much as the people who raise us. Growing up in Markdale, Ontario, filmmaker Jesse McCracken had a complicated relationship with his hometown. In his beautifully shot documentary, Grey Roads, McCracken returns to both observe how the small town has changed and confront his feelings of nostalgia. What makes his film so intriguing is how he frames his examination of the region through the eyes of two key men in his life.
In choosing to focus on his father and his maternal grandfather, McCracken crafts a fascinating examination of masculinity and the way communities often plant the seeds that allow the root of toxicity to grow. Like most young boys, McCracken idolized his father growing up. By the time he reached his teens, the image he had sculpted of his father began to crack. A truck driver and firefighter, his father’s brash demeanour fit securely within a stereotypical image of masculinity from a bygone era. He is a man who founded the Redneck Riders Motorcycle Club—a group he started with his hockey team buddies decades ago—and would regularly come home from a hard day’s work and drink the stresses away.
Though he spent his entire life in Markdale, McCracken’s father doesn’t have many remaining ties to the place these days. His dad is a stark contrast to the filmmaker’s community-oriented grandfather. A member of the local Rotary Club, his grandfather is desperately trying to preserve the memory of what the town once was—a place where you truly knew your neighbours and everyone came together to help each other. It is through him that Grey Roads effectively captures a community in transition. The film touches on how globalization, the closing of the local elementary school and a rapidly aging population have all played a role in the rapid depletion of the area. As the film points out, you cannot grow a community with young families if you have no schools to attract them.
It’s clear that transformation is needed to breath life into the town, but giving up what you are accustomed to, even if only partly, can be a difficult thing. While his grandfather sees the value in the town evolving, as new money and a more “multicultural” population slowly arrive from Toronto, he also ponders if his definition of community can survive the change. McCracken clearly shares these same thoughts as his gorgeous black and white cinematography paints a picture of a place that is full of both joy and pain. As if preserved in a snow globe that is too fragile to shake, the town is symbolic of a romanticized view of the past and the harsh realities that such views often overshadow.
By offering a fascinating and complicated portrait of a town frozen in time, McCracken presents an alluring look at outdated notions of masculinity that are often locked in time as well. Just as the world around them has shifted, both McCracken’s father and grandfather must come to terms with their own problematic pasts. Ones filled with abuse and PTSD, where alcohol was used to sedate the hopelessness. His father’s biker jacket may carry patriotic badges with questionable slogans that many would consider racist, but one gets the feeling that he doesn’t actually believe half the stuff he spouts. Though his stubbornness, including not wanting to allow women into the biker club, is a further reminder of the sense of male bravado ingrained in him from previous generations of Markdale men.
It is very telling in a film about change and masculinity that it is McCracken’s mother—only heard in voiceover—that offers the most sobering and impactful assessment of the town. In sharing details of the events that led to her divorce, she not only touches on the generational trauma that her husband endured, but also the set of unwritten rules that bound so many to a place where nothing changes.
Grey Roads constructs a mesmerizing portrait of the complexities of masculinity and a community going through change. It is a film that lingers in the mind as one ponders the film’s central question of what truly makes a good man? The answer is not an easy one. What is clear though, is that community often influences the direction one takes on the road to manhood.
Grey Roads screens virtually at Hot Docs from April 29 to May 9. Head here for more coverage of this year’s festival.