I’m very much a family man at heart. I obviously care greatly for my wife and kids (although I spend far too much time watching, reading and writing about films when I could be spending more time with them), but I’m also quite close to my extended family. I see my parents regularly and although my wife’s family and the rest of mine live further afield (mostly in different countries), we find time to visit them whenever possible and are always more than happy to see them. This may sound common and I’m sure it is, but many people grow distant from their family and know little about their aunts, uncles and cousins as they grow older. These days, more and more families are broken up too, fractured or made more complicated at least by divorce. Director Karen Guthrie’s family have an unusual history in which they seem to be simultaneously distant and close and she explores this in her documentary The Closer We Get.
Karen’s parents, Ann and Ian, fell in love, got married and rushed out four children in five years. Family life seemed pretty normal at first, but when the children were still young, Ian began to travel to Ethiopia to work (or volunteer, I missed that detail). This seemed admirable as the country needed support, but he would spend very long periods of time there, only returning once or twice a year for holidays, when he would often just take Ann away somewhere exotic. He just couldn’t seem to settle at home. This seeming lack of interest in family life, on top of a shocking revelation that I won’t reveal here, caused the couple to split, leaving the children with Ann.
In more recent years however, Ann suffered a devastating stroke which left her unable to care for herself. So her grown up children came back home to look after her. In an unexpected twist though, Ian also returned, after 15 years of divorce, to lend his support. Karen, who had been documenting aspects of her family life before the stroke, uses her probably vast amount of footage to craft a film that tries to find out just what happened between her parents and explore the unique dynamic now present in their family home.
It’s the latter side of the film that lets it shine. The strange history of the Guthrie family, which could have been milked for its soap-opera style twists and turns, is undeniably fascinating, but Karen isn’t interested in exploiting the ups and downs of her family life. Instead she looks at how illness can reverse the parent and child relationship, as well as examine the strange bond between families and ponder whether it’s love or a bizarre sense of duty that keeps them together.
Prior to watching the film, its description reminded me of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell and indeed the films share similarities. They’re both deeply personal autobiographical films which explore complicated family histories, further muddied by tragedy. However, I found The Closer We Get more intimate than Polley’s film. The latter is more experimental in form and becomes a look at storytelling more than family dynamics. Although Guthrie’s film has a narration tinged with poetry and the timeline isn’t presented in a straightforward fashion, her footage is all fly on the wall or archive, so you get a real sense that you’re observing ‘true’ family life, with all the arguments, warmth, annoyances and humour that goes along with it. This isn’t as present in Polley’s film which is often populated by reconstructions.
Although The Closer We Get takes a purely observational approach in its visuals, it doesn’t look rough and ready. It’s nicely shot with an artistic eye, particularly in some of the beautifully composed cutaways. The sound doesn’t impress as much though. The levels are all over the place, so I found myself having to turn the volume up and down frequently. I have a feeling the screener I had wasn’t the final version though, as some of the end credits were incomplete, so maybe the mix hadn’t been done on it.
Technical annoyances like this aren’t important though. What matters is that the film itself works exceptionally well. It tells its story calmly and quietly yet remains utterly engrossing. Making an autobiographical film like this could easily feel self-indulgent, but Guthrie handles things perfectly. Her wonderfully intimate footage and poetic but unpretentious narration subtly explore how illness, child-rearing, lies and truths affect families as a whole as well as the individuals within them, to spellbinding effect.
The Closer We Get is out on VOD on 31st August and on DVD on 5th September in the UK.