Documentary Film Reviews

Film Review: Monrovia, Indiana

Children of the Corn

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman delves into the heart of the “heartland”
by Andres Solar

“In thee, O Lord, do we put our trust in days long past,” says a member of Monrovia’s Masonic lodge, reading an invocation at an induction ceremony in director Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary. The prayer goes right to the foundation of this small Corn Belt community. Almost nothing is brand new or challenging, and history (the proverbial “days long past”) is king.

The Boston-native Wiseman’s wise, sprawling portrait of rural America even includes footage of a high school class on the school’s own… history of athletics (?), I suppose would be the name of it. Here, the director contrasts a middle-aged, male teacher’s extended excitement about a teen basketball player from 30 years ago with a shot of an unapologetic yawn from a female student.

So, as we take this trip to south-central Indiana, we are rewarded with humorous fragments like that, and always with something upon which to meditate. Like the still photographer who captures images that pique their curiosity—though they might not know exactly why—Wiseman shoots first and asks questions later. That there is something to the footage is enough, and there always is.

Things that you just don’t hear in the city, like “This is a place that could benefit from some population.” Declared by a growth-and-development leader at a town council meeting. We attend a handful of these gatherings of uptight locals, and the absurdity of some of the proceedings is ponderous. Wherein they deal with questions like, “Who’s responsible for building the missing piece of road into and out of the new development?” and “When is a fire hydrant not really a fire hydrant?”

In producing and directing over 40 feature films to-date, Wiseman (Ex Libris: The New York Public Library [2017]) has become a specialist in demonstrating that no place on Earth is boring. His holistic, patient, expositionally quiet approach allows any conflicts, curiosities, quirks to emerge organically.

We witness the values of a White town of less than 2,000 people: fear of God, fear of encroachment, football, football history, the local high school, tribalism, White males over 40. Also, apparently, since the invention of the internal combustion engine, Monrovia has never been the same—or different. The murmur of a gasoline motor or the clatterracket of a diesel is never more than a minute away.

Partly because the community is so grounded in the past, and partly because the director chose not to shoot inside any homes, Monrovian citizens sometimes seem on auto-pilot. There’s a “going through the motions” demeanor with some, and with others a mild confusion, like “I don’t know what to make of this… situation, sermon, carnival, etc.” It adds up to a lack of soul, not in the filmmaking, but in what Wiseman depicts. We do see some joy, on the faces of a couple of gossiping teens, and we admire the spirit of the tractor auctioneer: “C’mon, let’s sell some combines!” he shouts, thus earning the “Most Boisterous Character” award.

At another council meeting, about the road to the new development of “151 homes,” it’s fascinating how some of the members talk about their fear of Black people moving in, using code words exclusively. “Negative police runs” really means “rising crime.” “Population density attracts…” really means “Black people will move in.” “Had an effect on our schools” really means “desegregation.” This is pro-level dog-whistling, folks!

One thing that can definitely be said about Monrovia, Indiana is that they don’t talk openly about race in public when a camera’s rolling. Now, the question is: Why are these “ordinary citizens” seasoned experts on how to sound perfectly innocent while they discuss keeping Black people out of their town? Generation after generation of training in the skill?

A transporting film, sporting an easy sense of humor, Wiseman’s existential exploration of rural America is as thought-provoking as it is insightful. It’s an observational, unusual documentary that rewards the discerning viewer especially.

In the end, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve been to this town. It feels like a weekend visit to Monrovia, but exactly how the editor-director fits it into just under two and a half hours is remarkable for its subtlety. One sees so much in so little time, that it seems like some clever sleight of hand, but the artist’s special sense of time feels real.

When Wiseman takes you somewhere—a diner, a wedding, a street fair—he always takes a look back at the place when you’re leaving. That is part of what makes the experiences feel complete, thereby giving the impression that you entered, saw and heard what was to be seen and heard, and then left. Repeated dozens of times, the sense is that you really have visited a lot of places and seen a lot of people. The insights you gain as you go are of the rarest kind.

4 of 5 stars