Cinema vérité writ large and literal, “45365” offers a supremely detailed look at daily routines in small town America. Focusing on a huge ensemble of characters residing in Sidney, Ohio — the movie’s the titular zipcode — sibling filmmakers Turner and Bill Ross capture the minutiae of a self-contained world. In a feat of virtuoso documentary editing, they offer not one slice of life but several: Here’s the stone-faced judge going through the motions of his reelection campaign; there’s a jaded local cop frustrated over multi-generational criminal habits; the high school football team frets over upcoming competition while patrons at the local barber shop engage in run-of-the-mill gossip. The Ross brothers seem less intent on painting a big picture than several vividly crafted small ones.
That concept provides a two-sided proposition. On the one hand, “45365” contains a fascinating alternative to the standard linear narrative generally applied to portraits of middle class existence. Instead it favors a widespread observational approach that allows viewers to become totally immersed in the nuances of these lives. However, with no clear beginning or end, no cohesive thesis or overall trajectory, the individual pieces fail to add up. It’s a fractured experience that counteracts the possibility of any ongoing emotional investment in a larger plot.
However, this decentralized storytelling bears an obvious motive. At times, the canvas simply gets too crowded, but each thread functions on its own terms — and sometimes, one story comments on another. We see alienated teens and their bored adult counterparts. Communal rituals like rock concerts and sports games blur together to suggest the greater human impulses beneath the surface. “45365” is difficult to absorb as a single viewing experience, but unquestionably purposeful as a single unit: Life, the movie.
It’s also utterly gorgeous, suggesting a Terrence Malick movie set in the real world. The camera often steals the show, capturing the essence of the seasons as if reflecting specific characters. A bright, colorful day on the river juxtaposes significantly with closing shots of the entire town blanketed in snow. As the movie cycles through such scenarios, numbers from the title flash on the screen to signify different sections. The units, like “45365” itself, have arbitrary definition. The documentary is thusly defined by the nature of its name — an engaging and wholly unique enigma that operates on its own terms.
[Editor’s Note: Eric Kohn is a frequent contributing writer to indieWIRE. “45365” is available to watch on SnagFilms as part of its SummerFest series. indieWIRE is owned by SnagFilms.]