There’s a good chance you haven’t heard of Shenandoah, PA, but its landscape and demeanor should feel familiar. Formerly a bustling coal-mining town, the area is now a bit destitute… but you wouldn’t know it from the warmth emanating from its inhabitants, nor from the exuberant passion the community displays during events such as their Christmas celebration or the local football games. There is unity, a we’re-all-in-this-together mentality that keeps the people from hanging up their gloves and calling it a day. One of the most excellent aspects of David Turnley’s documentary “Shenandoah” is the way it peers so intensely into this society, efficiently (and quickly) establishing the atmosphere while also making the smallest cracks discernible. Something awful happened here, and the filmmaker smartly takes his time in revealing just what exactly occurred — as the investment into the populace grows deeper, tiny hints at the mysterious tragedy send shivers up the spine.
The production isn’t shy about details in the promotional material, and though this writer went in blind, the catastrophe that took place in Shenandoah is revealed within the first fifteen minutes and is a huge part of the film. So in other words: spoiler alert, but don’t worry too much about it.
Four high school football players got into a drunken altercation with undocumented Mexican resident Luis Ramirez, fleeing the scene after about a dozen kicks to the man’s chest and face. After being hospitalized in critical condition, Ramirez died, and the local police tried their best to cover up the crime by giving the assailants nothing more than a slap on the wrist. That is until Gladys Limon, a prominent California-based Latino Civil Rights Lawyer, caught wind of the incident and came down to Shenandoah to give the case a proper hearing. As the trial approaches, Turnley centers in on a number of people in the community, including Brian Scully, one of the accused athletes, and Ramirez's surviving girlfriend, Crystal.
But "Shenandoah" doesn't follow the usual “town versus the law” thriller angle and its concerns are less political and more social. It's less interested with legal justice being served and more focused on the mechanics of the town and the behavior of its citizens, questioning whether their tight-knit family can truly comprehend what their own offspring have done. The town can be read as a representation of major issues facing our country; how depressing economic times can lead to (among other things) violent, unruly racism.
The movie sometimes walks the line of portraying the community as ignorant rednecks — a rally before the trial includes hordes of people brandishing xenophobic signs with tuneful renditions of all the patriotic favorites filling the air — but the director avoids simplistic, condescending portrayals and instead focuses on their passion in the fight. Sure, this writer and many others will find their manner of conduct despicable, but Turnley doesn't look down on them by indulging in any wink-wink nudge-nudge editing. The sequence says all it needs to on its own.
Enhancing the intimate feeling is the cinematography, which appears to be consumer-grade HDV. This writer won’t trash the micro-indie, go-to DSLR equipment, but the camera choice here actually feels like a decision made for the sake of the film and not the budget. As a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, Turnley certainly knows the ins and outs of his tools and he wields his practical equipment not as a tourist but as an inhabitant. In turn, the audience also feels like an active participant, with emotional attachment solidifying right from the get-go. Structurally there's a good mix of cinema verite and sit down interviews; the rugged style making the latter feel less stiff and polished than typical Q&As usually are. Of those interviewed (which includes the aforementioned Crystal, Ramirez's friend, and another innocent football player), Scully is the most compelling. As he recounts the vicious murder and upcoming legal proceeding, he does so in an emotionless, matter-of-fact way, as if the true nature of what he's done has yet to dawn on him. It more or less seems like he's nervous about getting in trouble, with little visible guilt for taking a life. As the movie pushes forward he becomes more vulnerable (it happens while he's reading comments on an Internet article about the incident– you guys are monsters!), providing the most interesting "character arc" the documentary has, as well as being a good representation of the town's general mentality.
If "Shenandoah" has any faults it's at its finish, passing through some perfectly good closing sequences (trial results, high school graduation, the town's equality march for Martin Luther King Jr. Day) for a bow-wrapped check-in on every interviewed subject in the film. Combined with customary movie-climax music, each remark is used as a "closing statement" of sorts; their placement at the end gives each sound bite a “deep meaning” that ultimately feels forced. While it a leaves off on a positive note, it doesn't jibe with the rest of the film and would've benefitted with a more subtle, poignant ending.
Still, at the end of the day it's a minor misstep in a film that contains such strength and insight. "Shenandoah" is a perceptive look at a small community, revealing the ugly ways people take to a changing landscape. [A-]