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Monrovia, Indiana

   

Frederick Wiseman's survey of small-town Midwestern life opens with a montage of static views – fields, roads, houses, shops – as if flipping through a god-view cable package devoted solely to the title town. There's an intense sense of community, from a packed gymnasium of parents listening to an off-rhythm version of The Simpsons theme to a multigenerational montage of men getting (far too) high-and-tights at the barber shop. Throughout his career, Wiseman's genius has been presenting viewers with enough footage to draw their own conclusions, and giving subjects space enough to hang or reveal themselves. Here he's a little too generous, lingering on rituals and infrastructure that define lives without digging into any underlying beliefs. The first dip into the day-to-day, a high school history class where unmoved students hear a hagiography on the town's place of pride in basketball lore, suggests strong priorities that might not align with viewers'.

But in his attempt to neutrally present the dominating institutions of church, school, social clubs and sports, Wiseman overcompensates, only hinting at existing negatives. "Anti-PC" culture gets a brief sticker montage near the end, and racial relations are only inferrable by the few faces of color in the two-hour runtime. A tail-docking surgery at a veterinary office might be placeholder for casual slaughterhouse mutilation, scarcely suggested from the few herded cows and pigs shown. The finest moments are hearing actual opinions at a heated planning committee meeting. Still, anyone watching will feel like they've been to Monrovia, the best compliment for a documentary dodging judgements.

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