If you live in New York City, Matt Green has walked by your building. He’s walked all the other streets in your neighborhood, too — and while you rushed to the subway for work, he was likely learning some bit of lore about the area that you’d never guess. For over six years, he has been diligently walking every street, park lane and boardwalk in the five boroughs, and Jeremy Workman shares many of those miles in the endearing The World Before Your Feet, a portrait of easygoing obsession. A fine match for both lovers of the city and viewers with a soft spot for self-aware oddballs, the doc has theatrical appeal but will likely reach most of its audience on small screens.
An affable thirtysomething with a trimmed beard and (more often than not) cargo pants/shorts, Green used to be a civil engineer but got restless. He saved up some money and (after some warmup distance-walk challenges) set out to make exploring the city his sole job. He gave up his apartment — that’ll certainly help your savings go further — and now spends his nights on friends’ spare beds, housesitting, or caring for pets while their owners are away. (He rattles off the names of the cats he has cared for as easily as you might recall high school classmates.)
He estimates that he spends about $15 a day on transportation and food, but that doesn’t keep others from assuming he’s a privileged weirdo. Plenty of early scenes here find Green explaining his mission to people he passes on the street, most of whom react with friendly amusement. Some invite him to hang out a bit. On Day 1258 of his walk, for instance, he compliments some strangers in the South Bronx on their community garden and is given the grand tour; the Dominican and Puerto Rican immigrants who run the place give him a beer, play some music in their garden shed and send him on his way.
Late in the film, Workman (son of documentarian Chuck Workman) will muse indirectly on these easy friendships Green forms. He’ll introduce us to two former girlfriends, whose experiences suggest Green may be better at for-the-moment socializing than at more conventional intimacy. One says they fought when she tried to coax him out to movies and restaurants; another was frustrated by his lack of interest in “what’s next.” These interviews are paired with shots of Green walking through especially desolate parts of town, but if he’s lonesome, he doesn’t complain to us about it.
What he does talk about is the infinite variety of things a person notices when he walks not to get somewhere but for the sake of pure exploration. Goofy things, like the number of barbershop signs that replace “s” with “z,” as in “Faderz — Kutz Wit Skillz.” Sociological things, like the structures Green calls “churchagogues” — synagogues abandoned by Jewish congregations and taken over by Christians, often sporting symbols of both faiths over their doors. And things outsiders would never believe about New York City, like the wealth of edible crops growing in outer-borough yards.
An interlude chronicling the innumerable 9/11 memorial murals Green has photographed for his blog gives that event perhaps more weight than it deserves in this context, and the doc’s swelling score eventually begins to push us toward emotional epiphanies we might be able to reach without the help. The World Before Your Feet is best at its humblest, when it lets Green’s appreciation of the overlooked and the underrepresented speak for itself. People are always asking him why he spends so much of his life walking in strange neighborhoods; to his credit, he never responds by asking why they explore so little.
Production company: Wheelhouse Creative
Director-producer-editor: Jeremy Workman
Executive producers: Jesse Eisenberg, Allen Altman
Composers: Carly Comando, Tom Rosenthal, Max Avery Lichtenstein, Helen Jane Long, Rhonda Mackert, Haydn Miles
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Sales: Lucas Verga, The Film Sales Company