Sibling documentarians Bill and Turner Ross first gained prominence in the documentary community for their 2009 portrait "45365," a perceptive look at small town American life in Sidney, Ohio. The movie's popularity stemmed from the filmmakers' ability to depict ordinary events in stunningly lyrical terms usually absent from the realm of vérité cinema, an approach they have now refined with the extraordinary New Orleans paean "Tchoupitoulas."
Whereas "45365" took the form of a scattered collage, with disconnected events and a vast ensemble of characters stitched together to represent a year of activity, "Tchoupitalas" brings greater clarity to a similarly diffuse canvas by situating it around a trio of innocent observers. These are the Zanders brothers, three black adolescents whose arbitrary ferry trip from across the water to explore New Orleans' sassy, vibrant nightlife leads them down a rabbit hole of new experiences. It's a deceptively clever framing device for a movie that otherwise has no specific narrative thrust other than a persistent desire to glorify its magisterial setting. And that it does with continuing visual flair.
The name refers to a lengthy street alongside the Mississippi River, where the boys wander over the course of a single night to soak in the soulful music and flamboyant characters peppering the boulevard. There's more than a little sleight of hand at work here, since the shoot took place over the course of nine months, but the Ross brothers make no grand claims to telling a true story.
Instead, they observe the rowdy lineups of jazz musicians, exotic dancers, rap artists and others through a magic realist lens, giving the culture a salient texture that flows from one poetic moment to the next: At one point, a flame thrower dominates the frame with mesmerizing acrobatics that culminate when the fire seemingly freezes, only to morph into the taillight of a trolly passing in the night. Civilization merges into a cogent cycle that the Zanders watch without judgement.
Having missed their last ferry home, the boys (and their equally curious pooch) spend the night stuck in a wonderland, while the youngest of the bunch routinely elaborates on his open-ended intention of seeing the world in a Malick-like voiceover. Viewed in the most literal sense, "Tchoupitoulas" begs comparison to the Sundance-acclaimed "Beasts of the Southern Wild," which also assumes the perspective of a young African American child struggling to parse the New Orleans scene. However, "Beasts" blatantly assumes a fairy tale pose with loads of otherworldly ingredients and a thoroughly invented world. "Tchoupitoulas" sees the real world through a spectacular lens.
By assuming their protagonists' youthful perspective, the Ross brothers infuse the familiar iconography of Louisiana's celebratory urban landscape with a pure, almost spiritual depth. Their meandering narrative is peppered with cutaways to the Zanders' faces, a continuing application of the proverbial Kuleshov Effect that routinely creates the sense of discovery. Of course, the Zanders may not always look where the Rosses claim; there's no telling where the line between truth and fiction blurs, but the clash of naivete with a brilliant universe of expression rings true.
When considered alongside "45365," one can see a clear pattern developing in the Ross' work. It doesn't just have to do with distinctive titles. Both movies boil down American behavior turned into a series of otherworldly ritual, but only visible you put the effort into looking for them. In "Tchoupitoulas," a world comes to life after dark and vanishes by dawn, leaving behind the warm memory of a revelation.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Premiering at SXSW in the Emerging Visions section, "Tchoupitoulas" will likely garner strong audience and critical acclaim, but its experimental content means it will have a hard time breaking out beyond the festival circuit. Expect a digital release to push it to a wider crowd.