Following its vaunted premiere in the “Currents” program of this year’s New York Film Festival, Trust Exercises (2022) finds director Sarah Friedland incorporating elements of hybrid fiction and dance choreography into her familiarly contemplative style. Using bodies at rest and bodies in motion to illustrate the ages and stages of human development, Exercises is a thoughtful but wary portrait of the ways in which our movements—unconscious, ordained, or somewhere in between—adapt to their respective environments. The final installment of Friedland’s Movement Exercises trilogy screens tonight with its predecessors at the Maysles Documentary Center.
Beginning with Home Exercises (2017), Friedland recontextualizes the daily motions of her elderly subjects as a sort of “workout” regimen with the express goal of not only staying “in shape,” but staying engaged with and connected to one’s surroundings. Her categorization of the mundane as a series of repetitive steps, to be completed at specific moments in the day, recalls the liturgical hours—or, at the very least, Mark Wahlberg’s similarly-organized schedule. The import of these subtle, seemingly banal gestures—wiping down a countertop, getting out of bed, walking the dog—is too easily taken for granted among the young and mobile; it is tenderly honored by cinematographer Gabe Elder’s intimate portraiture.
The sinister double-meaning of “life-prolonging exercise” is all too present in Friedland’s follow-up, Drills (2020), arguably the most disconcerting entry in the trilogy. If Home could be taken as a depiction of the peace awaiting us in old age, Drills portrays the omnipresent disaster hanging, like the sword of Damocles, over the heads of America’s schoolchildren. In orderly, sterile, and disquietingly sedate footage, Friedland and Elder turn their gaze upon that wholly modern phenomenon: an active shooter drill, an unfortunate and too-common part of so many formative years. With children huddled together in the corner of a sunlit room, soundtracked by birdsong and the low hum of nearby traffic, the unspoken event at the heart of Drills feels at once far away and suffocatingly imminent. This hinted-at contingency is foremost on the minds of students, whose voiceover speculations as to the “safest place” in any given classroom add a depressing coda to a tidily-executed group portrait.
If one is fortunate enough to survive the prospective carnage of American childhood, there are still a fair number of hoops and hurdles to clear before one can attain the late-in-life peaceful monasticism on display in Home. Work is the price we pay for the lion’s share of our lives. In Trust, the dots between cowering adolescent to easily-corralled workhorse are connected through a series of performances and group movements. But Friedland is, in this critic’s estimation, an optimistic filmmaker, and the slick corporate feel-goodery on display in Trust is just one thread in a richer tapestry. Woven throughout this working portrait of capitalist pop-psychology is an experimental, organic alternative: movement for movement’s sake, illustrating the pleasure of exercises designed to elevate and excite, rather than merely contain the unwieldy body from the chaotic staccato of its surroundings.
Movement Exercises screens tonight, December 9, at Maysles Documentary Center. Director Sarah Friedland will be in attendance for a Q&A.