Film Documentary Resurgence Relieves Political Exhaustion

Three Identical Strangers

For no obvious reason, the reality mini-surge continues: By next weekend, at least three feature documentaries will have sold more tickets at the domestic box-office than any documentary without pandas that was released last year. The panda doc was Disney’s Born In China, which took in $13.8 million after it opened in April of 2017. That year’s biggest non-panda doc was Magnolia’s I Am Not Your Negro, which had about $7.1 million in sales. This year, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Has already logged over $20 million for Focus, RBG is at about $13.2 million for Magnolia, and, now, Three Identical Strangers, approaching $7 million after selling $1.2 million in tickets for Neon last weekend, is knocking on the door.

Why documentary ticket sales should be suddenly robust in the age of streaming is a minor mystery. Personally, I’d like to believe that grown-up viewers, exhausted by the angry politics on cable television, are turning to movie screens for intelligent relief. To date, the year’s winners show a broad, healthy interest in what the old Hearst newspapers used to call ‘all the tragedy and romance of life.’  We have the benign Mr. Rogers in Won’t You Be My Neighbor, judicial biography in RBG, and the confounding story of triplets separated at birth in a psychology experiment gone wrong, in Three Identical Strangers.

Inevitably, sharper political notes will be struck as the fall festivals and mid-term elections approach. Most particularly, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9, set for release in late September, promises to out-shout the talking heads on cable television, or, more likely, to join them in a promotional onslaught. But there seems to be plenty of less politically contentious stuff on the schedule, including biographies like Love, Gilda and Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex, Fashion & Disco; music, as in 40 Years In The Making: The Magic Music Movie; and whales, as in A Whale Of A Tale.

Already, the documentary bloom seems to be softening dinner conversations in these parts. At one Santa Monica gathering this week, hardly anyone mentioned Donald Trump. The debate, of all things, turned on whether the first part of the  Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was perhaps a little slow, and how we could possibly have forgotten about the three reunited brothers who were such a curly-haired sensation in the early 1980’s on The Phil Donahue Show.

It was fun to talk about movies without getting trapped in an angry cross-fire over Russians or the latest Hollywood sex abuse case. More, it was fun sitting in a theater last week, hearing the little gasps and “oh, no’s” as Three Identical Strangers peeled back the layers around a long-ago decision to turn three baby triplets into separated lab rats. The good word of mouth was audible. Film was doing its cultural job—getting us out of our own heads, and into the head of somebody else. On the documentary front, at least, that could make for a very good year.

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