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Jefftowne (1998) is about, well... Jeff Towne, a 38 year old man with Downs Syndrome who lives with his 94 year old foster mother in Iowa City, Iowa. Jeff's vocabulary is limited to some indistinguishable utterances and words like "Balls- Girls- Beer- Mall- Ass." If you are around him long enough the words he does speak combined with other grunts form sentences making Jeff semi-conversational. Jeff likes the Three Stooges, porn, beer, wrestling. His daily life consists of the same routine, getting up, going to the mall and the Campus Theater, hanging out there until closing, then going to a bar, going home, then repeating the routine the next day (except on Mondays when he goes home early to watch wrestling). He has become such a fixture at the mall they gave him a uniform and the theater manager, Kim, has become a sort of unofficial foster father to Jeff. If you work at the movie theater you know Jeff, including the filmmakers of this doc, Iowa college students Daniel Kraus and his one man crew of Craig Oulette, who both thought he would make suitable material for a documentary.
This is the kind of film that is arguably exploitative. Of course, the more amusing things are often what is most interesting, like Jeff's crude porn drawings, his breaking past security to shake William Shatner's hand at a Star Trek convention, dressing in a Halloween costume and running out of the store with it on, or his senile mothers belief that they are winning Publishers Clearing House. However, I think if it is exploitative that has much more to do with the amateur film makers and their inability to plan the doc out or execute it with any smoothness or, frankly, much maturity. That is, you can tell the people around Jeff acknowledge that he isn't just some retarded child but an adolescent simpleton capable of mischievousness, charm, and even able to use his disability as an excuse when he does something he knows is naughty. However, it is the manner in which the doc plays out, a rough assemblage of talky scenes and a lack of focus, that makes it exploitative.
The intent, which is something you have to search for because it isn't really stated bluntly, is that not all people with such disabilities are like the popular image- either so limited they are like vegetables or basically like grown-up children. The main laymans view you get of Downs Syndrome is the Educating Peter outlook or something generally sweet and safe. "Jeffy" is a sweet guy, and while a man-child, he also buys porn, feels girls up, draws porn, goes to a strip club on his birthday, and so forth, making him someone who shouldnt be condescended to like a child.
Where the film really fails is in its lack of action. That is, over the course of 65 mins, there are far too many interviews/stories from people in Jeffy's life. Jeffy's ability to get away with things because he has Downs Syndrome aren't really shown but talked about. We get stories of his stealing employee wallets or other antics, like taking his moms checkbook, buying a ring for one of his crushes, and then proposing to her. But what we actually see is Jeff walking around the mall, at his home, and mainly sitting with friends, them asking him about his various notorious tales, yet, because of his limited vocabulary and mind, they end up telling all of the details. So, the only solution the filmmakers could come up with for an inarticulate protagonist is to solve it with talk instead of action. So, it is more like you are getting peoples view of Jeff more than getting to know him as this kind of person they perceive. And, it is the ruder things about him that get attention.
The DVD: Troma
Picture: Full-screen standard, shot on 16mm and some 8mm. Mainly color with some black and white. The inexperience of the two person, still learning as they went, crew is evident. It is rough, scratchy, and often badly focused or badly exposed. I'm going to give it a low rating, yet, it is still perfectly watchable, and considering they were guys who were non-professional and just testing the waters, these things are all forgivable.
Sound: DD 2.0. Read the above. The sound is equally as rough. Luckily the DVD has subs, so some of Jeffy's more indistinguishable bits are translated.
Extras: Chapter Selections--- Various Troma Trailers, info, and DVD credits--- Five Deleted Scenes, complete with either voice-overs or intros by Daniel Kraus, the director, explaining them.--- Jefftowne 2 (18:05) featurette. Daniel Kraus returns to re-visit Jeff's life four years later to see how he has been doing. For instance, Jeff is now officially the head usher at the theater, and his mother is, as he puts it, in the "cookoo house."--- Trailer for the film--- Jeff explains the classics (1:32). Jeff explains the plots to a couple of films like Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan and Pet Semetary--- Jeffy Unleashed (35:23). The filmmakers made this video doc of their trip to the SlamDance film festival where they were one of two documentaries in competition. A bit overlong but interesting for burgeoning film kids. They hang up fliers, give Q&A to an audience about the film, go on a local tv (cable access, I think) show, and star gaze- including a drunk and stumbling Christina Ricci.--- Two Commentary tracks. Track one has director Daniel Kraus and Jeff. What was probably an amusing idea is a bit of a labor to listen to. With Jeff's limited vocabulary and attention span, there is a lot of "So what's going on here Jeff?" prodding, answered by one word (like "beer" or "cake") and a grunt. Track two has Kraus and his cameraman, and it is the more revealing track, detailing everything from making the film, more Jeff stories, and reactions they got to the film.
Conclusion: The feature itself is pretty lightweight due to the inexperience of the film makers. It is a borderline doc, probably not too seedy for the South Park crowd and not astute enough for pure doc fans. It is somewhere in-between. However, Troma included enough decent DVD extras, including a semi-sequel/update on Jeff's life and the filmmakers journey to Sundance, to make this DVD a worthwhile purchase for those interested.