Even when he isn't dressed as a giant tree bearing the nine fruits of faith, musician Daniel Smith cuts a striking figure. Throughout Danielson: A Family Movie, a loving documentary about Smith's life and work, the eccentric musician conveys a heartbreaking fragility that suggests a nervous breakdown lurking just around the corner. That breakdown never arrives, and Danielson hints at abundant darkness just beyond the frame without ever veering beyond a respectful distance. God works in mysterious ways, but he has nothing on Smith, who croons Jesus-loving lyrics in an otherworldly, high-pitched, sometimes incomprehensible screech alongside his family, in indie-rock clubs where much of the audience consists of jaded hipsters rubbernecking at the crazy Christians in nurse uniforms and other zany get-ups.
Smith's life constitutes one long performance-art piece combining art, music, faith, family, and joy. Director J.L. Aronson here chronicles Smith's unlikely career with an affectionate, low-fi aesthetic clearly modeled after the ingratiatingly homemade vibe of its enterprising subject. Smith's family members help narrate the proceedings with poignant awkwardness, and some semblance of forward momentum comes in the form of Sufjan Stevens' ascent from an opening act and musical "pinch-hitter" for the Danielson family into an unlikely superstar. But mostly, Aronson is content to simply drink in the dreamy, twee spectacle of Smith's uphill campaign to spread joy and win souls for Christ.
Danielson seems to be moving inexorably toward a climactic conflict or crisis that never comes. Instead, it leaves its intrepid hero ambling toward a strange transcendence, a surprisingly satisfying ending for a delicate labor of love about a man living his faith in the strangest of ways.
Key features: Loads of deleted scenes and additional performances.