Safety in Numbers

Darrell Hartman on 45365

Bill Ross IV & Turner Ross, 45365, 2009, still from a color video, 93 minutes.

IS IT IRONIC that 45365 (2009), a more or less home-baked film that celebrates a particularly American ideal of small-town life, never really makes it back to the cradle from which it sprang? Lovingly created by a pair of natives of Sidney, Ohio, 45365 (the town’s zip code) is about to have a theatrical run—in New York, of course—after screening mostly at festivals in cultural hubs like Austin (where it won the SXSW Grand Jury Prize), London, and Turin. It probably won’t, as they say, play in Peoria.

But the stable, quietly God-fearing America depicted here has broad appeal—just ask any politician. And while not quite everything is rosy in Turner and Bill Ross’s time-capsule portrait of a contemporary Midwestern hamlet, much is. The civic machinery of the Sidney depicted here works along at a gentle hum. Not that 45365 feels too tidy; the editing and camerawork have a pleasantly unforced flow.

Early on, a local patrolman responds to a call from an old-timer whose cable isn’t working; later, he confesses he’s arresting the same people he did when he started on the force—and now their children, too. It’s sad, but there’s a reassuring pattern in it. Spend a little time here, the film suggests, and you’ll soon figure out who the troubled folks are. (Compare that to the opacity, boredom, and deep emotional disturbance Steven Soderbergh explored in Bubble [2005], which was partly filmed across the state in the hollowed-out factory town of Belpre.)

45365 is conservative in the most appealing ways. “I live up the road, I work down the road,” a customer explains at the barbershop, to which the film returns several times. It could be a century ago, except he’s black and has a white guy fussing over his hair. Meanwhile, girls compete in beauty pageants and ride horses, and grunting boys go to football practice and the demolition derby.

The Rosses, to their credit, seem aware that they’re blending authenticity with nostalgia-tinged idealism. The film opens with a trumpet player on an empty stage and a sad, tumbling melody that recalls a Nino Rota score. Later, the filmmakers cut from a lovely musical interlude to a group of hunters blasting away at ducks.

The film’s most obvious forerunner is Frederick Wiseman’s Belfast, Maine (1999). As in that elegiac portrait of a small town, the system works. A new bridge gets built, the cops do their job, a local judge’s successful election campaign goes off without a hitch. And everyone behaves decently, even when they’re in handcuffs. Kids aren’t smoking, getting pregnant, or even texting—they’re talking about relationships and cruising through parking lots, presumably the way their parents did.

But how do you film a teen surfing for porn, anyway? Perhaps out of necessity, 45365 does some glossing. Like the prayer Sidney’s football team chants in the locker room before the big homecoming game, the small-town ideal is a comfort against the chaos and uncertainty that lie beyond it. Which is why the film grows so poignant when, in a single cut, it moves from the full roar of game night to a shot of the same field, months later, empty and blanketed in snow. These are cherished rituals. Whether or not you’re from so-called “real” America, this sincere tour of them probably won’t leave you cold.

45365 plays at Anthology Film Archives in New York June 17–23. For more details, click here.