An engaging mix of non-fiction and narrative filmmaking that follows the story of a desperate undecided voter seeking answers to her life's accumulating troubles.
When Woody Allen's character Mickey from "Hannah and Her Sisters," contemplates reincarnation, his conclusion about another life is "Great. That means I'll have to sit through the Ice Capades again." A hypochondriac faced with mortality, his character is on a quest searching for solace from among the world's great religions. It is not a movie about religion, but rather an existential drama written by a comedian. "Janeane from Des Moines" is, in the same way, not a polemic about politics but about a woman whose life is unraveling while she grasps at anything to prevent her descent into psychological quicksand. Because it is 2011 and she lives in Iowa on the eve of the Iowa Republican Caucuses, she has extraordinary access to some very high profile people who claim to have solutions to her problems: Republicans running for President of the United States.
It is a fictional movie co-written (with director Grace Lee) by a comedian (an amazing Jane Edith Wilson in the title role) and populated by comedic actors (including Michael Oosterom, Mary Manofsky, Judith Shelton and Laura House) but is not a comic gimmick a la "Borat", designed to compromise unwitting victims. It is a drama that engages its participants in a dialog that they have signed up for. As a parade of public figures appears on screen, it is not because director Grace Lee has played hidden camera "gotcha". It is that Newt Gingrich, Rich Santorum and pastors of an Iowa mega-church have sought out the attention and willingly play to cameras in full view. The effect is nothing short of stunning. When Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachman, who at the time of the Iowa straw poll, was skyrocketing to national fame as the most famous woman in Republican politics, invites Janeane to sit down for a cup of coffee with her and Iowa Congressman Steve King, it's hard not to be at least a little impressed at the recognizable faces that appear in this micro-budget indie film.
The film appears to be driven by the tenacity of director Lee and actress Wilson but largely it is motivated by the quiet storm of the character of Janeane, a woman forced to confront her convictions head on. Set adrift by circumstances she never could have imagined - a philandering husband, economic upheaval, sudden illness - she turns to that which she has long relied on for comfort: her church, her community, her family and her deeply-held conservative politics. Sadly, none of them appears to offer the answers she seeks. It is not that there is evil at work in these institutions, it is simply, according to the portrait the filmmakers paint, that the people claiming to have the solutions are more focused on their own interests. To accomplish forward momentum in their own careers, they dole out concern in the form of perfunctory platitudes directed more at the audience watching at home rather than the person standing in front of them.
The film opens with a clip of Diane Sawyer on World News Tonight introducing footage of Janeane pleading with Mitt Romney on the night before the Iowa Caucuses, to help "save the small families of America." Sawyer offers telegenic empathy for "that woman." It's staggering to watch for two reasons: Mitt Romney is talking to a character in a fictional film and it's being reported as fact by ABC which claims that "more Americans get their news from ABC News than from any other source." By the end of the film, we see more footage of this same event. We watch, slack-jawed, as Janeane, presses on - a woman with absolutely nothing to lose but still convinced she has answers to gain. By pushing her way through a phalanx of camera crews, a desperate and determined salmon fighting its way upstream to salvage its very existence, she zeroes in on candidate Romney, clutches him and unloads her troubles. Romney can only muster a tepid "that's why I'm running." It's a towering acting achievement that she manages to battle her way to the would-be president while staying in character as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She is immediately thrust into the center of a media firestorm as, after her encounter, "real" reporters swarm her and ask inane questions like "You really want change, don't you?" Although none ask her seemingly basic journalistic questions like inquiring about her name, address or if she's really an actress masquerading as an undecided voter. Maybe that is because journalists have gone along with the charade for so long, they don't question who's pretending or not anymore; making them complicit in the whole exercise. The sad truth of this tricky-to-categorize film, is that while they are both pretending, the actors emerge as more sincere than the candidates.
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