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The Call of the Wild (2007)

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A masterpiece: one of the great American documentaries of the decade.
14 September 2009 | by (Sunderland, England) – See all my reviews

This disarmingly fresh, utterly engrossing - and ultimately very moving

  • documentary takes as its starting-point the tragic tale of Chris


McCandless. McCandless was the twentysomething American adventurer whose lonely death in the Alaskan wilderness also forms the focus of Sean Penn's fictional feature Into the Wild.

But as well as addressing the specific details of McCandless's controversial life (and even more controversial demise), director Lamothe covers a surprisingly expansive amount of geographic and thematic terrain as he journeys cross-county - driving, then hitchhiking - in McCandless's footsteps.

Indeed, the film becomes not so much about McCandless or Lamothe (though it's certainly to some degree a portrait of both) but a more general rumination on the ambitions and limitations of the generation to which both belonged (the picture is part-dedicated to 'Generation X') and also a celebration of rural America's more eccentric backwaters.

At various points Lamothe's path inadvertently intersects with that of Penn and his crew - producing some hilarious (and shaming) contrasts between Hollywood's methods and Lamothe's resolutely lo-fi approach. Not that budgetary and technical limitations make this any kind of rough-and-tumble affair: Lamothe, who provides genial, clear-eyed, articulate narration throughout, certainly knows how to frame shots and assemble a compelling narrative.

He also allows himself one bit of virtuouso show-offery in a hyperkinetic 'Gen-X' montage of found footage from America's turbulent recent past, turbo-propelled by Nirvana's raucously-anthemic 'Breed'.

For all its merits - and pretty much everyone I have recommended it to has responded with great enthusiasm once they tracked it down - 'The Call of the Wild' remains a bizarrely underexposed, off-the-radar title. But make no mistake - this is emphatically one of the best American documentaries of recent years.


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