Review by Beth Gilligan
Posted on 31 January 2006
Source First Run Features DVD
Those familiar with Ross McElwee’s films should have no trouble recognizing the name Charleen Swansea. Colorful and outspoken, she has popped up in nearly all his films, the perfect foil to the director’s self-effacing, introspective persona. In Charleen, however, she is the main attraction — the documentary, which McElwee completed as his thesis for graduate school, stands out from the rest of his canon in that it does not directly deal with McElwee’s own life. Although the two are longtime friends (they met when McElwee attended the high school where Charleen taught poetry), the filmmaker is conspicuously silent throughout the bulk of the movie, with inter-titles standing in for voice-over commentary, a jarring change for those used to hearing the director’s metaphysical musings.
While Charleen’s vivid personality picks up some of the slack (among the tidbits revealed is the fact that she ran away in her teens in search of a “new father,” and evidently found one in Ezra Pound), in the end the documentary winds up feeling more conventional (especially in the wake of reality TV) than the rest of McElwee’s oeuvre. His fly-on-the-wall approach captures all sides of Charleen’s personality: outgoing, dedicated, talented teacher; frazzled mother; rebellious daughter; and anxious lover. Despite these efforts, the movie’s running time (54 minutes) winds up working to its disadvantage, as the final scenes, which show a distressed Charleen confessing to having smashed her younger lover’s windows out of jealousy, feel somewhat out of the blue given the upbeat vivaciousness she displays throughout the rest of the film.
Still, given the movie’s roots as a student film, it seems unfair to judge it in the same context as Sherman’s March or Bright Leaves. On its own, it stands as a candid look at the life of an unconventional woman, and is a must-see for all those who look forward to Charleen’s memorable appearances in McElwee’s other films.