Home for the Holidays

Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, October Country, 2009, still from a color film, 80 minutes.

FREED FROM THE CONSTRAINTS of chronology—and emboldened by an enviable degree of access—October Country positions a real family squarely under the microscope and then ratchets up the magnification. Codirector Donal Mosher is the family member who long ago fled his rural suburban hometown in upstate New York, returning often to the ghosts of his past through his photography projects and nonfiction writing. Joining forces with filmmaker Michael Palmieri—best known for visuals in music videos for groups like the New Pornographers and the Strokes—Mosher heads home to reexamine his origins, on video. Recording the Mosher family over the span of a year, beginning and ending on Halloween night, October Country uses ghosts, curses, and hauntings as metaphors for a family trapped in a state of limbo, weighed down by the mistakes of the past.

Focusing less on the quotidian than on the emotional epiphanies of a year spent treading water, the directors capture the persistent anxiety of Mosher’s father, a cynical war veteran coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. In Mosher’s mother, we see a woman led astray by her misguided optimism, caught in a naive cycle of hope and disappointment. There is the estranged Wiccan aunt who spends her nights wandering cemeteries, looking for fulfillment in touching the supernatural, and a sister who jumps between abusive relationships, depressingly aware she is repeating her mistakes and putting her young children in danger.

Mosher has the access and the insight, but it is Palmieri’s visual flair that elevates October Country to an impressionistic, hypnotic spectacle. When Mosher’s sister says, “I’m still a kid, too; you can’t play Mommy if you’re not grown up yet,” it floats on the evening breeze; the filmmakers construct elaborate montages to suggest that the issues plaguing this family are poisoning the wider community. Talking-head interviews are sharply, didactically, juxtaposed with images of the family out and about: Mosher’s sister, who gripes about bad men, is subsequently shown on the job at a biker bar where she must flirt with the clientele. Mosher’s mom, who fears for her abused daughter, giggles at the sight of chipper teenage boys trick-or-treating as battered women. The directors see in this family a unit that’s been broken by its economic and social conditions, and Palmieri has helped his colleague make universal the specific miseries of one broken home.

October Country plays February 12–18 at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.