At 8:15 a.m. on a Tuesday morning about six weeks ago I was scrubbing oatmeal from the bottom of a scalded pan when life handed me a rare, unexpected gift. Unlike the Mother’s Day ideas, I’d pitched enthusiastically to my family (a pedicure and pants) this wasn’t the kind of present I’d ever thought to ask for, because I didn’t know I needed it. My gig as an emcee for Mountainfilm was coming up, I had a slew of flicks to view that morning, and I thought I’d utilize my multitasking superpowers by cleaning up the breakfast mess while a documentary played in the background. I hit play on the first one, a film called “Sam Now.” As I attacked my dirty pot with a fresh Scotch-Brite sponge, the director began his narration.
“This is my half-brother Sam. We have different moms, but the same dad.”
My eyes flicked to the screen. Grainy camcorder footage of a seven-year-old with a ’90s haircut, all goofball grins and innocent eyes. More home videos of Sam and his brother, boy-play and sweet silliness, arms flapping with cardboard wings, nutty costumes and childish, benign gore. Years of brilliantly weird home movie sequences fired by, and I watched Sam grow into a teenager, a process documented by his half-brother Reed via kooky storylines, wild, nonsensical play-acting and rooted in a palpable underscoring of fierce, joyful love.
If these jolly home movies had gone on forever, I would have happily watched them, but all of a sudden Reed, the director, delivered the following punch: “There was something bothering me, something that nobody in our family wanted to talk about. Two and a half years earlier, Sam’s mom disappeared. She left town without telling any of us. There was no note, no address, no way of contacting her. She was just gone.”
My hands crossed at my throat. My eyes pricked with tears. This was the story of a mother who leaves her children and how those children go looking for her. Oh, holy hell. I set down my sponge and wiped my hands. The mess could wait. I would watch this film with cellular-level attention. I would let it swallow me like a foot in wet sand. By the time I finished it, I could barely move, let alone finish the dishes. The film had burrowed inside me and was sitting there, gently humming, waiting for me to unravel its significance.
I hate to sound dramatic but my viewing of “Sam Now” felt almost supernatural. I had read about how sometimes great art can make you feel that way, how it can totally gut you, transform you, chew you up and spit you out in the best of all ways, but I had never experienced that phenomenon myself, not until that moment.
Family. Can you think of a subject that’s more complicated, or more laden with hurt, with fondness and frustration and messiness? I can’t. And while I was never abandoned by my mother, I’ve experienced terrible loss in my family, loss that still leaves me reeling at times. This is one of the many bold yet delicate themes that this film so artfully unpacks: how do we deal with the traumas that stem from our families? Do we let them define us? And how do we keep them from spiraling through generational repetition?
Fast-forward to the recent Mountainfilm festival, where I got to emcee the showings of “Sam Now” not once, but twice. I got to meet the director and film subject Reed Harkness and the rest of the film’s crew. They were all so warm and lovely and so awash in creative spark that I got blushy and fan-geeky. When the theater darkened on the first screening of “Sam Now” and the story unfolded before a rapt, packed house, I could feel the electric connection between the audience and the story. Recognition and relevance pinged and danced from the wood-paneled walls, cathartic and painful and real.
After each showing and throughout Mountainfilm, Reed was inundated with people who wanted to connect, to tell their stories and to share how his film had affected them. Even now, weeks after the fact, people are talking about the big feelings they’ve had post-viewing. It seems that just about all of us have a skeleton or two stuffed neatly away and reeking of mothballs. I believe that a film like “Sam Now” helps us, if we choose, to open the windows and air out the closets.
I asked Reed if he had anticipated the film to engender this much emotion or discussion.
“I believe in the power of film, and I believe in the power of stories,” he said. “The underlying piece to this is that almost every family has some major element of childhood trauma that is unaddressed. … I’m looking at how beautiful and hard it is to be a part of a family. It’s a love letter to my family and to families in general.”
I watched “Sam Now” with my husband and our two children, who are 15 and 11. When it was over, our son said, “We need to go talk about this.” So we got a booth at Oak towards the back, and we talked about it. It was a good talk. It reminded me that we need to do that more often. Later, when Trav and I dissected the whole experience, we agreed that watching that film with our kids had been the best thing ever. It had helped us find words for some of the things we’d been trying to say. The way “Sam Now” enriched our lives was better than a pedicure and pair of pants. It was a gift we hold in our hearts.