We Always Lie to Strangers: Film Review

This impressionistic portrait of the heartland show business capital is too diffuse to be fully engrossing.

AJ Schnack and David Wilson's documentary examines Branson, Mo., through the eyes of several of its performers.

AJ Schnack and David Wilson’s documentary about Branson, Mo., begins with an array of startling statistics. This town located in the Ozarks has a population of roughly 10,500 people but attracts more than 7.5 million visitors a year. Its annual revenue from tourism is nearly $3 billion, and its more than one hundred theaters boast more seats than Broadway.

You might think, then, that We Always Lie to Strangers will emerge as a thoughtful examination and history of this heartland show business mecca. But the filmmakers have taken a different approach, delivering instead an impressionistic portrait of the town through the personal stories of several of its performers, as well as its mayor, Raeanne Presley. Five years in the making, the film has the air of a reality television series.

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Its subjects include the Presley family — no relation to you know who — headed by elderly patriarch Lloyd, who put on their first show in 1967; Joe and Tamra Tinoco, whose struggling The Magnificent Variety Show features a cast that includes their four-year-old daughter; the Lennons, an extended entertainment clan whose ranks include the Lennon Sisters, famous for their appearances on The Lawrence Welk Show; and gay couple Chip Holderman and Ryan Walton, who perform in separate shows.  

The latter are the most compelling subjects, with Holderman struggling to maintain a relationship with his young sons despite the overt hostility of his ex-wife’s religious husband. The difficulty of being openly gay in this town whose mayor says that “the three things we hold dear are God, country and family” is touched upon, with Walton commenting, “You have this huge gay population but yet it’s the Bible Belt … I don’t know where somebody came up the idea to put those two together.”

The film explores at length the town’s current difficulties, with the financial crisis having placed a particularly large burden on the middle-class families who are its bread and butter. Another key theme is the tension between such politically liberal performers as the Lennons and the more conservative general population.

Although it contains many emotionally resonant moments, We Always Lie to Strangers is ultimately too diffuse and meandering to sustain interest over the course of its overlong running time. One gets the feeling that the definitive documentary about this fascinating show business subculture has yet to be made.

Directors: AJ Schnack, David Wilson

Producers/directors of photography: AJ Schnack, David Wilson, Nathan Truesdell

Executive producer: Matthew C. Mills

Editor: AJ Schnack

No rating, 109 minutes