'In Transit': Tribeca Review

A quietly lovely trip through lives in transition

Albert Maysles and company ride the rails.

Arriving just a month after the beloved documentarian's death, In Transit is a pure dose of the humanism that helped establish Albert Maysles as one of nonfiction film's key voices. Traveling cross-country on the Empire Builder, Amtrak's busiest long-distance line, he and four fellow directors introduce us to an assortment of everyday Americans, drawing them out over the three-day ride and connecting in ways that would be unimaginable in the confines of an airliner. A low-key counterpart to Maysles's Iris, the flamboyant, fashion-centric doc starting its commercial run this month, In Transit will be warmly welcomed by the director's fans even if it lacks the larger-than-life personalities found in, say, Grey Gardens.

Taking advantage of train travel's distinctive characteristics, the filmmakers float freely from car to car, listening in on some conversations without interjecting and engaging directly in others. In the former category, we find beautiful encounters between strangers: the young black man who grew up without parents, listening with hushed respect to an older gentleman who knew Martin Luther King; the PTSD-struck veteran, taking what he expects will be the last vacation of his life, joking around with an overdue pregnant woman who's hoping not to deliver before she gets home to relatives.

People's individual philosophies, we see, bubble up easily when they're asked what they're doing on a train. Sometimes half-baked and playful, sometimes developed through hardship, they attempt to make sense of what the speaker is moving toward or away from. A Native American in a troubled relationship seeks solace in the monotony of the Great Plains; a woman traveling solo revels in the temporary state of not being someone's mother, someone's wife; a kid from Mississippi admires his own daring at simply picking up and leaving everything, not even telling his boss he was moving to a strange new city.

Gorgeous mountain views are interspersed with discussions of a recurring topic, the oil boom that has transformed many of the communities this train passes on its way from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest. Short-haul passengers between these towns briefly make the train a rowdier place; one drunken 21-year-old says of his lucrative boom-time employment, "I figure, seven years in the oil field, I'll be set for life."

Few of his fellow passengers share his certainty about the future. But with this team of sympathetic filmmakers listening, they all seem to feel good about sharing their stories. As a sweetly nerdy girl who wears a knit cap and identifies as the child of a "crackhead" puts it, "These are the things I talk about in my head that I don't tell other people."

Production company: Maysles Documentary Center

Directors: Albert Maysles, Lynn True, Nelson Walker, David Usui, Ben Wu

Producers: Lynn True, Nelson Walker

Executive producer: Erika Dilday

Directors of photography: Albert Maysles, David Usui, Nelson Walker, Ben Wu

Editor: Lynn True

Sales: Erika Dilday, Maysles Documentary Center


No rating, 76 minutes