Daniel Mosher’s “October Country” photo series is a thing of beauty, revealing the spooky vibes and ethereal quality of a small town in the Mohawk Valley. But as a documentary (directed by Michael Palmieri, with Mosher’s help), the project is problematic. The movie October Country looks every bit as luminous as Mosher’s photos, and is just as captivated by the accidental beauty of the junk people scatter in and around their homes. But in digging deeper into the stories behind the junk—many of which involve the drug problems, legal problems, custody battles, cycles of abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorders of Mosher’s own family—October Country veers awfully close to exploitation.
Palmieri and Mosher follow the Moshers over the course of a year, letting them spill their woes to the camera and each other. We meet Dottie (the kindly, heartbroken matriarch), Don (the battle-scarred Vietnam vet), Denise (Don’s mopey Wiccan sister), Donna (Dottie and Don’s haggard daughter), Chris (their criminal foster son), Daneal (Donna’s cranky grown daughter), and Desi (Donna’s smart-alecky 11-year-old girl, prone to pronouncements like “I play videogames all the time, which seems bad, but there’s a bright side to it, because I watch less TV.”). Conspicuously absent? Donal Mosher himself. He never appears on camera or reveals his connection to his subjects in any way—a choice that seems increasingly dodgy as the drama in October Country intensifies.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Palmieri and Mosher exploring dark moments in the lives of deeply bruised people. The problem is that October Country is all bruise. We don’t see much humor or affection, or the rhythms of everyday life. Instead, it’s just one conversation after another about longstanding family resentments, aired with minimal context. And while the movie looks beautiful—and it’s revealing to see how each Mosher generation judges the next—some family members are noticeably playing to the camera. When Daneal smacks her chauvinist boyfriend first playfully and then forcefully, or when they start bickering about their respective shortcomings, it doesn’t really feel like a moment of stark reality captured vérité-style. It feels like a Jerry Springer moment, exacerbated by the presence of observers.