'Almost There': Film Review

Courtesy of Kartemquin Films
An Outsider art portrait that becomes an unlikely redemption tale.
12/4/2015

Two docmakers get more than they bargained for with the eccentric painter they discover.

First-time directors Aaron Wickenden and Dan Rybicky discover their debut by accident in Almost There, in which a chance encounter with a self-taught artist threatens to make them responsible for keeping the eccentric man alive. What starts out as a familiar kind of portrait — of an artist whose primitive but weirdly compelling works emerge from a precarious and sad home life — eventually grows a layer or two more complex, offering narrative appeal even to those who don't know their Henry Dargers from their Howard Finsters. The documentary remains a niche item in commercial terms, but may have legs on video given the persistent art-world interest in characters like this one.

The co-directors meet Peter Anton (not to be confused with a younger artist of the same name, who sculpts giant replicas of boxed chocolates) at a pierogi festival in Indiana, where the elderly man is producing quick-draw portraits even a mother mightn't call pretty. It's only when he shows off his obsessive handmade scrapbook that they realize they're on to something unusual — though it takes more than a year, and a notecard reminder from Anton, for them to visit their subject at home.

There they find an abode frightening enough for an entire season of reality TV programming. Living in the basement of his dead mother's home, he's allowed so much filth (and so many cats) to accumulate in the falling-apart residence that the filmmakers need respirators to enter. It's "like a fort that an 8-year-old would build," says Dan, a friend of Peter's for 30 years, whose patience with his increasingly needy buddy is growing thin.

As Wickenden and Rybicky's interest in Anton's off-kilter paintings grows, they not only start organizing an exhibit for him (at Chicago's excellent Intuit gallery, which specializes in untrained/visionary/call-it-what-you-will art), they also start helping him with little necessities, not realizing he will expect their largesse to have no bounds.

They wind up so invested in keeping this likeable, nearly helpless man afloat that they're blind to concerns many viewers will have as soon as the doc starts recounting his odd biography. A can of worms opens at the film's midpoint that plays out in a more nuanced and sensitive way than expected. Almost There finds plenty of narrative drive in the unfolding concern over what to do with a man being discarded by the world. But anyone who has thought much about Outsider art will recognize ethical and aesthetic issues that come up time and again when "sophisticated" viewers find a new untrained artist to celebrate.

Production company: Kartemquin Films

Distributor: Factory 25

Directors-producers: Aaron Wickenden, Dan Rybicky

Screenwriter: Dan Rybicky

Executive producer: Justine Nagan, Gordon Quinn

Cinematographer-editor: Aaron Wickenden

Composer: Joshua Abrams

 

Not rated, 93 minutes.

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