'A Bread Factory': Film Review

An abundance of riches.

The latest effort from Patrick Wang, acclaimed writer-director of 'In the Family,' is a two-part minimalist epic about an upstate New York community arts center struggling to survive.

Few filmmakers treat their characters with as much compassion and complexity as Patrick Wang. The writer-director, previously responsible for the acclaimed In the Family and The Grief of Others, deftly demonstrates his unique way with cinematic storytelling with his ambitious new project A Bread Factory, composed of two linked films meant to be seen consecutively and subtitled For the Sake of Gold and Walk with Me a While, respectively. This minimalist epic amply showcases Wang's gifts for Chekhovian-style drama infused with generous doses of subtle humor. The two-part film, running more than four rewarding hours in total, represents the sort of deeply humanistic filmmaking that demands attention.

The title refers to the arts space established 40 years earlier by creative and life partners Dorothea (Tyne Daly) and Greta (Elizabeth Henry) in an abandoned bread factory in the fictional town of Checkford in upstate New York. The two women and their institution have long been mainstays in the small community, with the Bread Factory serving as an arts educational space for its children as well as a venue showcasing theater, music, poetry, dance and films. But the venue's future becomes threatened by the establishment of a lavish new cultural space, FEEL ("Forum for the Exercise and Experience of Living"), created by an avant-garde duo from China dubbed Man Ray (George Young, Janet Hsieh), who have clearly mastered the show business aspects of performance art. They even provide their own canned applause.

Since the Bread Factory's survival is dependent on funding provided by the town, Dorothea and Greta find themselves in the fight of their lives. They desperately attempt to rally support from the townspeople: "We have more parking than they do," Dorothea haplessly reminds a city council member. But the opposition has hired a slick administrator (Trevor St. John) who's not above using underhanded methods to achieve his goals. He even recruits a handsome young movie star (Chris Conroy) to come to town and campaign personally for the new facility. "I go where the art is," he declares at the hearing. That he hasn't fully mastered his testimony becomes evident when he calls out for a line.

Even as the Bread Factory struggles to survive, its founders begin work on an upcoming production of Euripides' Hecuba, starring Greta. We see the show being cast and rehearsed, and eventually are treated to excerpts of the Greek tragedy in performance. The show may turn out to be somewhat ragged, but the sheer joy and collegiality of the creative process are made manifestly evident.

Among the intriguing characters figuring in the proceedings are an aging British actor, referred to as "Sir Walter," played by the late Brian Murray in his final screen performance; a long-retired critic (Philip Kerr) whom Sir Walter hasn't spoken to in years after receiving a bad review; and an independent filmmaker (Janeane Garofalo) whose teaching method could use some improvement ("Your video is crap!" she screams at one frightened little girl. "I'm gonna kill your dog!"). There's also the editor of the local newspaper (1970s cinema mainstay Glynnis O'Connor, making a too-infrequent big-screen appearance), who attempts to get to the bottom of the interlopers' finances; and a coffee shop waitress (Jessica Pimentel) who makes an unlikely acting debut in the Greek tragedy ("Oh, I always wanted to die beautiful," she says when her character's fate is described). But that list only scratches the surface of the multi-character tapestry woven by Wang with a richness and complexity that rival Robert Altman at his best. The director, utilizing lengthy, static takes filmed in 16mm, provides myriad opportunities for his actors to shine. And they live up to the opportunity; every single performance feels vibrant and alive, with Daly in particular investing her portrayal with a well-honed sly humor that earns some of the film's biggest laughs.  

The film's second part, taking place after the contentious community board meeting, is less story-driven and more surreal, as the filmmaker seems to change stylistic gears midstream. Characters suddenly burst into musical numbers and energetic bouts of tap dancing, and although these moments are occasionally charming, they more often feel forced and affected, too slavishly imitative of filmmakers such as Jacques Demy. And while the Hecuba performance excerpts subtly mirror some of the film's themes, they go on for so long that the viewer's patience is taxed.

A Bread Factory would probably have benefited from a trimming of its excesses and being condensed into a single, albeit lengthy film. At its worst, it smacks of directorial self-indulgence. But at its best, which is far more often the case, it's a small-scale wonder. This is a film you don't so much watch as  live in.

Production company: Vanishing Angle
Distributor: In the Family LLC
Cast: Tyne Daly, Elisabeth Henry, James Marsters, Nana Visitor, Brian Murray, Philip Kerr, Glynis O'Connor, Zachary Sayle, Janeane Garofalo, Janet Hsieh, George Young, Trevor St. John, Amy Carlson, Martina Arroryo
Director-screenwriter: Patrick Wang
Producers: Daryl Freimark, Matt Miller, Patrick Wang
Director of photography: Frank Barrera
Production designer: Bekka Llindstrom}
Editor: Elwaldo Baptiste
Composers: Aaron Jordan, Melissa Li, Chip Taylor, Andy Wagner, Patrick Wang
Costume designer: Michael Bevins
Casting: Cindi Rush Casting

Part One: 122 minutes
Part Two: 120 minutes