At what point does loyalty to family trump personal ambition, and is the decision to put all aspects of your life on hold, for the responsibility of caring for a sibling, always the right decision? These are the questions that emerge, and are partially addressed, in Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan‘s “Raising Renee,” a frustrating documentary that boasts the odd problem of being deeply intimate yet strangely distant at the same time.
The film centers on painter and professor Beverly McIver, a North Carolina native who moved to New York City and never looked back. She forged a successful career as both an artist and teacher, and in 2003 is savoring her first solo gallery show, as well as praise from Art In America critic Raphael Rubinstein. However, her mother Ethel asks that if/when she should pass on, that Beverly promise to care for her cognitively impaired sister Renee, whose mental development is on par with that of a child in third grade. Beverly agrees, and a few years later is finally forced to confront the life changing reality of taking in Renee, and finds herself questioning why she agreed to do it and how it will impact her life, particularly in terms of her professional and creative success.
But who is Beverly McIver, why should we care about her plight and in what ways is her life irrevocably changed? Unfortunately these are central queries the filmmakers never satisfyingly answer. Despite filming with Beverly for over six years, it’s this central figure who remains the most elusive, thanks to choices by the directors that are hard to understand. The film opens with Ethel and Renee visiting Beverly in New York to go to her art show — a series of evocative portraits of her mother and sister — and they are introduced to Rubinstein. It’s a cute scene with Renee giving the art critic one of her homemade potholders, which she churns out on a daily basis. But the filmmakers don’t seize the opportunity to talk to Rubinstein about the importance, impact or influence of McIver’s work. Nor do they ask Beverly’s relatives their thoughts about being hung up on the walls of an art gallery. And it’s this lack of asking hard or incisive questions that permeates and affects “Raising Renee” as a whole.
McIver herself also stays mum on what kind of catharsis (or not) her paintings of her family bring her, or what she is trying to express. In fact, her relationship to her family warrants deeper exploration. As McIver notes, she is the only one of her family who isn’t religious and who got out of Greensboro as soon as she had the chance (citing the still palpable racism of the region as a motivating factor). Yet, no questions are asked of her mother or her other sister Roni about what they thought about this, or how it makes them feel. In another segment, Beverly laments that in her 40s, she longs to find a husband, but again this thought is left to drift as we learn little about her past relationships or how caring for Renee has impacted the prospects of finding a companion. But perhaps her biggest regret is leaving New York City to care for Renee just as her status in the art world was ascending. What could she have gained or where could she have gone if she had stayed? That speculation (or, again, insight from someone like Rubinstein) remains left to the viewer to cast.
In the footage we see in the all too brief, yet somehow still overlong 81 minutes, there appears to be an overly familiar relationship between the filmmakers, Ascher and Jordan, and Beverly, Renee and the rest of the family. And this (perceived) familiarity becomes an oversensitivity, which allows for the filmmakers to include a superfluous and unnecessary subplot about Beverly’s cats (really) over something (anything) else of more substance. Where are Beverly’s friends? What has been their perception of the changes (or not) in Beverly, whose main gripe about caring for Renee doesn’t seem to go further beyond mild irritation (for a rather charming interviewee, she seems adept at laughing off hard answers)? How did Roni feel that Beverly — who lives in New York by herself — was asked over her, and her church-going husband who live in Greensboro, to care for Renee? Did she feel that she couldn’t be trusted?
There is a myriad of complex emotions when it comes to caring for a disabled family member, but “Raising Renee” never mines them. The myopic view and insistence to stay strictly within the viewpoints of blood relatives Beverly and Renee prevents the film from having the kind of scope and perspective it so desperately needs. Instead, the second half of the film slightly shifts focus to Renee herself, revealing a couple of harrowing facts about her life, followed by a sweet, promising change in her situation that makes her future unbelievably brighter than it has ever been. And while “Raising Renee” reaches a warm conclusion, it’s hardly enough to gloss over the slightness of the film, one in which cats and hand knit potholders are used to cover the harder edges of a much more compelling story that’s never told. [C]
“Raising Renee” airs on HBO2 on Wednesday, February 22 at 8 PM.