'Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson': Palm Springs Review

Packed in a Trunk Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Palm Springs International Film Festival

Packed in a Trunk Still - H 2015

This highly personal doc takes a penetrating look at family secrets and social repression.

Emmy-winning writer Jane Anderson explores the history of her great-aunt, an artist who was confined in a mental hospital.

Stories about family secrets seem to be gaining popularity as more writers delve into the hidden corners of their past. Many books have been written about people discovering startling facts about parents or grandparents, and documentaries have followed suit. Last year, Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell focused on the Canadian actress' disorientation when she learned that the man who raised her was not her real father.

One of the strongest films at this year's Palm Springs Film Festival was another very personal documentary, Packed in a Trunk, about Emmy-winning writer Jane Anderson's search for the truth about a great-aunt who had been consigned to a mental hospital in the 1920s. Shortly before the festival, HBO bought the film for airing later this year. It's an extremely well crafted movie that tells an eye-opening story about some of the abuses heaped on gifted women in a more benighted era.

Anderson's mother was the one who first became interested in learning more about her aunt, Edith Wilkinson, and the family discovered that many of Edith's belongings had been sent to a relative in West Virginia after Edith died. The trunk kept in an attic consisted of a remarkable number of lyrical paintings. Soon Anderson (whose credits include the HBO films Normal and Olive Kitteridge) also became involved in uncovering the truth about this forgotten relative.

Anderson, who is openly gay and now married to a long-term partner, may have been especially intrigued to learn that Edith was also a lesbian who lived for many years with a female companion. Wilkinson's sexual orientation may have had something to do with her incarceration, though she was probably also the victim of a greedy lawyer who wanted to rob her of her inheritance by convincing authorities that she was mentally deranged. And so Edith spent the last 30 years of her life in asylums, where her artistic gifts languished.

The journey that Anderson undertook eventually led to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Wilkinson was part of a thriving artistic community before her commitment in 1924. And the most moving sections of the film concern Anderson's determination to restore her great-aunt's legacy by mounting an exhibition of Wilkinson's work in the Cape Cod community.

The film benefits from having the feisty, forthcoming Anderson as a protagonist. Director Michelle Boyaner disclosed after the screening that Anderson originally did not want to appear on camera but was persuaded when she realized that otherwise the film would have had to rely on pedantic art historians to carry the story. With Anderson and her partner, Tess Ayers, as characters onscreen, the movie becomes much more dynamic.

This doc benefits from beautifully photographed scenes in Provincetown and from revealing interviews with the town's inhabitants, as well as with Wilkinson's other surviving relatives. Cinematographer Barbara Green was also the film's editor, and she has an innate sense of rhythm as well as a flair for composition. There are some genuinely moving moments when Edith's legacy is at last reclaimed, and the film also makes biting comments about the oppressiveness of a patriarchal culture that stifled many maverick spirits.

Director: Michelle Boyaner
Screenwriters: Jane Anderson, Michelle Boyaner
Producers: Jane Anderson, Michelle Boyaner, Barbara Green, Tess Ayers
Director of photography-editor: Barbara Green
Music: Danielle Ate the Sandwich

No rating, 78 minutes