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"Sam Now" is a gentle, empathetic movie that will be unbearably intense for viewers who fear abandonment, but that might prove to be healing, or at least enlightening if they can stick with it to the end. Constructed of home movies and family interviews spanning 24 years, director Reed Harkness' documentary tells a painful and complicated story from his own life: his stepmother Jois (pronounced "Joyce") disappeared one day in 2000 without warning or any further contact or explanation. Even though they were separated, her leaving shocked her husband Randy; their sons Sam and Jared, who were in elementary school at the time; and Reed, then a teenager.
Reed Harkness began teaching himself filmmaking as a child, using a home video camera and a Super 8mm film camera that he found in storage in the garage. He typically used the much-younger Sam, an athletic, exuberant boy, as his leading man. It's obvious from the snippets of footage in the earliest sections that Reed is a born filmmaker, varying his angles as if he'd storyboarded them on paper, on in his head, beforehand, and often shooting in slow-motion and from unusual vantage points. It's also clear that Sam is a gifted screen performer, although he'd never have described himself that way (and in the present day, still doesn't). They do stunts and engage in trick photography in the manner of early silent comedies and experimental films. Sometime after Jois' disappearance, they begin filming episodes in the recurring adventures of a superhero known as the Blue Panther (played by Sam), with each entry chronicling one of the character's missions.
Then one day, Sam suggests that the Blue Panther should find Sam's mother. As Harkness describes the moment in his voice-over narration, they both were surprised that he said it, then seemed to realize that what they'd be making together next would not be another diversion but a documentary-mystery with the power to break the whole family's heart all over again.
This is where the reader should duck out and return to the piece later if they would rather not know more about what happens.
Suffice it to say that this writer came into the film knowing nothing about the events being chronicled and as a result, spent the first section of the story in a state of abject dread imagining what might have happened to Jois. The answer is upsetting, no matter what you might have anticipated. Jois was feared dead, perhaps even murdered, but was eventually located by police, who told her family that she was fine but wanted no further contact with them.
There was no secret abuse or apparent drug or alcohol problems, mental illness, secret second identities or hidden criminal pasts, or any of the other bombshells that usually drop in stories like this one. What happened was much more mundane: Jois was unhappy being a mother, got a chance to leave and remake herself, took it, and didn't look back.
There are many films, novels and plays about fathers who leave their families without explanation and the damage it does to those left behind. But there aren't many about mothers who do it. One conspicuous recent exception would make a great double-feature with "Sam Now": Steven Spielberg's fictionalized memoir "The Fablemans," about how his mother left his father and their children. It has a lot of details in common with "Sam Now," from the teenage suburban filmmaker protagonist to the central story of a woman who is outwardly a devoted mother and partner but is dying inside and takes a leap that she knows will mark her as a pariah for the rest of her life.
Most of the film’s emphasis, however, is on the family Jois abandoned, especially Sam, whose sweet smile and open face start to seem more haunted as the tale goes on. Much of the first half is about Reed and Sam embarking on a two-person odyssey to find Jois, playing private detective by diving into search engines and questioning friends and relatives (including Jois' mother and aunt).
It surely didn't occur to either of the young storytellers that they were doing something that most of their elders wouldn't be skilled enough or emotionally tough enough to do. But everything about their quest is astounding, including the nerve and faith required to embark on such a journey in the first place; the incisive questions that then-twentysomething Reed asks various interviewees who knew Jois and were destroyed by her disappearance; the raw honesty and perceptiveness of the answers he gets, even from subjects who resist his probing; and most of all, the openness and emotional transparency of his brother, leading man, and best friend Sam.
Young Sam died inside a little when his mother left and compensated by developing a resilience that could be interpreted as self-armoring numbness when seen in hindsight. The longer the movie goes on, the older and taller and more physically assured Sam becomes, the more painful it is to look at images of little Sam smiling and laughing because you know how much pain he was in. "Sam Now" grows into its title in its final third, after Sam has reconnected with his mother and learns that she feels bad about leaving her children but doesn't regret it, because she felt she was living a lie and needed to take a radical step to be happy.
This is a remarkably fair and empathetic work, considering the agony that Jois put her family through. It isn't prosecutorial, but in its own soft-spoken way, it holds Jois to account. Jois expresses regret for the unhappiness she caused but never seeks forgiveness, and there's a coldness in how she frames her decision. She often uses therapy-speak in the self-protective manner of people who wish they felt guiltier.
But in the end, the movie makes a sincere attempt to understand her, mainly by asking her to tell her own story, then considering the parallels, cycles, scandals, and tragedies that recur through different generations of extended families, some of which seem conscious and preventable, and others of which seem as mysteriously inevitable as curses. Jois is a half-Japanese woman who was raised in secret by the birth mother who was ashamed of her, then placed with a white family that lives by the credo that a family's problems are its own and should not be shared with anyone outside or perhaps even discussed with one another. She was given up by her biological mother, then abandoned her own children, and when Sam is an adult, he admits that he cuts people off suddenly to keep them from getting too close, and tanked a meaningful relationship with a young woman for the same reason.
There's a nature-and-nurture argument to be had here about what happens to people who aren't wired or inclined to be parents but become them anyway, but this is not a good place to get into it. The important thing to know is that this film gets into it, mostly by implication, while telling the story of the family, and listening to them talk to the camera and each other about what happened.
"Sam Now" is remarkable not only for its powerful subject matter and the restrained, intelligent way it examines its key players, but for how it simultaneously reaches the audience and everyone involved in the story. There's no quantifiable way to prove that a movie loves its characters, but I think you can feel it when it happens, and it happens here.
A big part of what makes "Sam Now" so gripping—to the point where a minute can feel like an hour, in a cathartic yet excruciating way—is the curious and benevolent gaze it casts on everyone in it. You can feel the overwhelming, perhaps verbally inexpressible love that the filmmaker has for his family, his siblings, his father, his grandmother, and aunts, all the family friends, even his stepmother, as well as for the city he lives in and the landscapes that he and Sam travel through. You feel it in the way he frames homes and streets and the care he puts into all of the "fiction" sections, whether he's using clever editing and stop motion to make people disappear and reappear or inanimate objects come to life or letting a moment of conversation play out even as the family cat slinks into the frame to make biscuits on the father's head or obstruct Sam while he's decorating a t-shirt.
Most of all, you feel the love Reed has for Sam, a man whose life has become his own life's work, like "Boyhood" but with a real person or one of Michael Apted's "Up" films (which Harkness has cited as key influences). The films of Jonathan Demme, Terrence Malick, Barry Jenkins and other great humanist filmmakers look at their characters this way, too: tenderly, forgivingly, so that every face radiates a life force. You grow to love, or at least accept, everyone who passes before the director’s lens, so much so that as the end of the story draws close, you feel a knot in your stomach because you don't want more misfortune to befall those who have endured so much. This is one of the year's best films.