On Thursday night, the big competition premiere at the Sarasota Film Festival, was Samantha Buck’s documentary 21 Below. A heartbreaking and gripping portrait of a dysfunctional middle-class family in Buffalo, New York, the film hits you over the head with its powerful display of human flaw and a suffering trio of sisters. Oldest sister Sharon comes home from Manhattan, to stay with her mother and husband, while she prepares to have her first baby. She’s back home, not just for her own pregnancy, but also for the third pregnancy of troubled sister Karen. Karen’s youngest baby, Maya, is suffering from a rare genetic disease and diagnosed with a life expectancy of three years. Unfortunately, though, Karen lacks compassion, structure, and responsibility. Her current boyfriend (and father of her unborn baby) Courtney disappears every day, and cameras follow him as he spends his time selling weed on the streets. This turbulent couple spends its time dependent on Sharon, and the family matriarch, who is willing to live as a rock of support even though they despise who Karen has become.
Buck follows the family over a period of several years, as we see them learning to cope with baby Maya’s impending (and devastating) death. Karen and Courtney exist as a defiant, but co-dependent, strain on the rest of the clan. The two of them aren’t happy together, but they don’t know how to exist without one another, while Karen keeps getting pregnant again and again. 21 Below is sad stuff, but captured and crafted into a riveting film. There are countless documentaries about dysfunctional families, and many of them can be depressing. 21 Below stands apart as a rare example of everyday events molded into a powerhouse experience. Within these homes, subtle nuances of cultural difference come into focus.
Following the debut at Sarasota, 21 Below will screen at Hot Docs later this month.