Allis was a mother, wife, and frustrated feminist who lived a problematical life of anxiety and depression. When she died in 2001, her children found 300 pages of transcripts, 50 hours of audio recordings, and 200 home movies in the backyard shed with explicit instructions to peruse after her passing. With a fractured family scattered to the four winds, grandson Morgan Dews took over the task of research, finding an entire existence he knew nothing about, documented with alarming precision that revealed deep psychological wounds disregarded long ago.
"Must Read After My Death" isn't a traditional talking heads documentary on a splintered household, it's more of a piece of performance art, using Allis's collection of media as the tour guide through the rummage of her life. Employing audio and visual cues from the unearthed collection of memories, the film assumes an almost surreal quality, inching it away from "Capturing the Friedmans" comparisons to become something distinctive in its conviction and tireless in its curiosity. Within seconds of the film's opening, "Must Read" sucks the viewer into this alien world, finding unnerving comfort in the distortion of a dysfunctional family and their heartbreaking downward spiral into ruin.
Allis was married to Charley -- a gruff, alcoholic, no-nonsense man of the house -- and the two raised four children over the 1950s and '60s to varying degrees of emotional distress. Allis and Charley were locked in a constant state of domestic warfare, necessitating the recording of thoughts and letters to better explore their problems and vocalize their fears, often for the listening purposes of dubious mental health professionals. "Must Read" pores over the audio files of Allis and Charley as the divide between them grows abyssal, spurred on through petty arguments, Charley's constant business travel and flippant infidelity, and Allis's growing restlessness with her domestic requirements, at odds with her feminist heart. It's a hodgepodge of dissent, at first calmly recounted by the couple through scratchy Dictaphone recordings. As the years go by, matters bottom out rather severely.
Because Dews isn't nudging this film along with narration, "Must Read" takes some time to settle into, partially because much of this story is left off-screen. Allis and Charley's woes are only given shape by the recordings, with Dews successfully communicating a lifelong struggle, armed with limited resources. As Allis grows more despondent over her husband's distance and stubborn behaviors, becomes discouraged with her children and their developing emotional problems, and confronts her limitations as a woman, "Must Read" transforms into a profound statement on the complicated movement of life. It's not a cheerful story by any means (tragedy always seems to hold near to Allis and Charley), yet it staggers across the screen with dynamic emotional reach, enhanced by a wonderfully effective acoustic score from Paul Damian Hogan.
Soon, the opportunists leap into play, complicating matters for Allis, who finds her natural mothering skill smothered by outside interference and paralyzing bouts of self-doubt, with Dews leading the film to a conclusion expected yet still shattering. By turning misery into performance art, Dews has crafted a piercing motion picture that sheds icky voyeuristic limitations to transform into something mournful and reflective, finding a sense of resolution in the midst of an unexpected education.
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