Accept no imitations: A film by Ross McElwee could be made by no other. Since his hilarious autobiographical breakthrough, ”Sherman’s March,” nearly 20 years ago, the profound artist-philosopher – for that’s what he is, in the guise of a droll documentarian-raconteur – has been using his own life as a springboard to examine humankind’s biggest issues, and tiniest: finding a mate, being a parent, losing a parent, getting older, putting up with a thousand points of daily crap. Personal yet the opposite of egotistical, truthful yet playful, happily distractible yet patient, and above all grateful for those in the world he loves around him, McElwee makes movies the way life might, ideally, be lived.
In Bright Leaves, his first film in eight years, the filmmaker (who has long resided with his wife and son in Brookline, Mass.) begins with homesickness for his native state of North Carolina. His thoughts drift to the complicated importance of the tobacco crop back home – valuable to the economy, dangerous to the people – then zooms in on the complicated importance of tobacco in the history of his clan: A great-grandfather who invented the Bull Durham brand made money and then lost it when the Duke family overtook him; his grandfather died of lung cancer; his late father was a doctor who treated many patients for the same disease.
When McElwee follows up on an old family rumor that the 1950 Hollywood melodrama ”Bright Leaf” – the eminently forgettable film directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall, and Patricia Neal – is based on that great-grandfather’s life, the great-grandson is off and running: The intersection of a Hollywood production and the kind of low-tech, real-life home movies that are his speciality inspires a narrative of glorious flexibility and nuance. Irresistibly in love with holding a camera, he’s also in love, it seems, with everyone lucky enough to face his lens.
And so McElwee honors everyone with exceptional dignity, whether it’s the successful tobacco farmer singing hymns in church, a klatch of beauty-school trainees lighting up cigs on a break, or Patricia Neal herself, making a local appearance (he films her sitting for a makeup application at a Merle Norman cosmetics counter). He talks with family and friends, including his colorful muse and former high school teacher Charleen. He looks at old footage of his late father and of his son, Adrian, now a teenager. And sometimes he just noodles around with the camera trained on himself in a rundown park – that would be McElwee Park, a sorry, two-bench sight – or a pumpkin patch (the shot is dogged, he shows, by a yapping dog that won’t get out of the frame).
”Bright Leaves” looks casual, like a chat, a stroll, a summer afternoon. Indeed, it feels seductive, kind of like how smoking felt to him, he explains, when he smoked. Ah, but while he seduces, McElwee also inspires, an artist who breathes free.