The Other Side
Directed by Roberto Minervini
Opens May 20 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
West Monroe, a city of 13,000 in northeast Louisiana, happens to be home to one of the most prominent rags-to-riches stories reality television ever told: that of the Robertson family of Duck Dynasty fame. Setting its sights on much less fortunate residents of this very same pocket of the Bayou State, the quasi-doc The Other Side embeds with a meth-addicted couple and a group of ex-military militiamen to form a portrait, at once sensitively rendered and exceedingly raw, of boiling-over discontent—and the self-medication that seems all but required to manage it.
This is the fourth work by Italian-born, Houston-based Roberto Minervini to explore the fringes of the south-central United States (after the festival-buzzy “Texas Trilogy”), and it seems poised to further raise the profile of the 46-year-old filmmaker, given the election-cycle timeliness of its hard look at white grievance: The least racist, most printable critique of Barack Obama in the film comes from a teenage girl who simply pronounces him “self-centered.” Here, Minervini doesn’t do much gawking, though, patiently building out a social context for beliefs and behavior that most viewers will consider beyond the pale.
Perhaps more gonzo collaboration than fly-on-the-wall document, The Other Side credits the subjects of its first hour, Mark Kelley and Lisa Allen, with playing “Mark” and “Lisa,” versions of themselves they’ve disclosed to the camera. Not that they seem to hold much back: Minervini, who told Filmmaker magazine last year that he’s “completely oblivious to risk when I film,” shows them cooking meth and having sex. Small-time dealer Mark demonstrates great tenderness with Lisa, his cancer-stricken mother, and his school-aged niece—and great rage at a political system he sees as having failed him. (As a convicted felon who spent two and a half years in jail, he’s also lost the right to vote.)
It is during a staged break-in at an empty school that Mark first gives vent to his true feelings about the 44th president, whose likeness he comes across on a classroom wall. The vitriol on its own is queasy-making, but a few of the scenes of scraping by, plainly documentary in their content, manage to be even more unsettling. At one point, Mark puts a needle in the arm of a pregnant stripper before she takes the stage. It’s also one of the few moments here in which the camera seems to be seeking out squalor for its own sake—the woman gets no screen time outside the club, where she hardly speaks at all in the first place.
For the last third of the film, Minervini leaves behind Mark and Lisa to tag along with a militia that gathers nearby, its armed members training for a last-stand confrontation with the federal government—a rather abrupt break that draws attention to the comparative discipline of the group’s anti-establishment anger. The canny leadership denies any political affiliation whatsoever, but, unsurprisingly, Obama is still enemy number one—in this company, we see a cartoonish rubber mask of the man defiled in a few over-the-top ways.
“Legalize Freedom,” reads a banner trailed by a plane late in the film, a sign several men chase down excitedly as it drops to the ground. This sundown scene reminds there’s more to these men’s camaraderie than their default modes of self-presentation—drill-sergeant stoicism and scorched-earth mischievousness—might suggest. This militia is a fighting force, amassing firepower for a prophesied revolution, but at the end of the day it is also, like Mark and Lisa’s family, just a tight-knit community. No wonder they want to protect it.