In “Kati with an I,” documentarian Robert Greene (“Owning the Weather”) turns his camera on his teenage half-sister on the brink of her high school graduation. That backdrop offers nothing new, but Greene’s patient, understated portrait renders a universal rite of passage in strangely alluring, poetic terms.
A world premiere at the newly launched DOC NYC festival (although it first screened at the True/False Film Festival), “Kati with an I” landed a 2010 Gotham Award nomination for “Best Film Not Coming to a Theater Near You.” The category is fitting for a movie that knowingly dismantles the cheery fantasies of teenage life depicted in mainstream entertainment.
A resident of the close-knit Christian community in Piedmont, Alabama, Kati Genthner doesn’t have it easy. Greene captures a key moment of transition in her life during the three tense days prior to her graduation. A few months earlier, her parents moved back to their home in North Carolina after her father lost his job. Living with her friend Bridgette for her final two months of school, Genthner appears firmly entrenched in her surroundings even as she expresses a deep-seated desire to escape them. Her boyfriend, James, lacks Genthner’s decisive energy to leave Piedmont, despite his pledge to stick with her when she goes off to college. Meanwhile, her parents urge her to drop the guy and come home. Forced to make big decisions without any reliable support system, Genthner looks perpetually troubled, and Greene captures her discomfort in close-up.
An unsettling look at the early onset of adulthood, “Kati with an I” belongs to an emerging genre. Others have compared it to the insider glimpse of lower class family dynamics in last year’s “October Country,” which also contained a cross-generation clash of values, but I also saw echoes of “45365,” a documentary about life in Sidney, Ohio, where the tranquility of the locale clashes with an eerie sense of alienation. In “Kati with an I,” the young protagonist constantly grapples with the very same duality, clinging to her roots while holding out hope for the future. The realism of her plight exists in stark contrast to the reality television framing of Nanette Burstein’s “American Teen,” which rendered a similar transition in “Breakfast Club” terms.
At times, Greene seems too enamored of his subject. A few scenes, where virtually nothing happens, overstay their welcome; Genthner’s story works better in the form of a collage rather than pure fly-on-the-wall verité. The immersion has a cumulative effect: Since Greene establishes the tenuous prospects of Genthner and James’s relationship, an extended scene where they belt out the lyrics to The Red Jump Suit Apparatus single “Your Guardian Angel” is weighted with mixed feelings and unintended irony.
Greene’s greatest strengths come from his ability to capture the inner rhythms of his half-sister’s life – the quick glances and sudden expressions that hint at an active mind. Lusciously shot by cinematographer Sean Price Williams (“Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo,” “Frownland,” “Yeast”), the movie often feels like an attempt to evoke Genthner’s fragmented thought process. In one scene, she’s relaxing next to James on his bed while he strums a guitar, and the warmth of their connection dominates the room. Later, she stands in the crowd of her graduating class and appears to get lost in the shuffle. Her dogmatic principal preaches to the outgoing pupils: “I want to apologize on behalf of my generation for removing god from the public schools,” he says. She looks unperturbed by his ravings. Or maybe just bored by them.
It’s unclear whether Genthner identifies with the religious ideology imposed on her, but she discovers her own agenda in far more personal terms: “Your mom is holding onto you with an iron fist,” she tells James, struggling for the right words. It’s almost refreshing that she can’t find them. Despite her misdirection, Genthner sustains her innocence. She’s a likable object of pity, and Greene notes as much with an end credit listing her as the movie’s “star.” Indeed, Genthner delivers a heartfelt screen presence that ranks among the best performances of the year, and it’s certainly the most legitimate one.
criticWIRE grade: A-
This review was originally published during indieWIRE’s coverage of last year’s Doc NYC. “Kati with an I” opens this Friday, April 8.