“Brandy Burre is Actress,” reads the opening credit of Robert Greene’s aptly titled documentary “Actress,” setting the stage for a movie wholly consumed by that single, hypnotizing presence. A once-promising thespian who abandoned a role on HBO’s “The Wire” to start a family in upstate New York, Burre invites a tantalizing mixture of fascination and pity. Less nonfiction portrait than a poetic framing of domestic frustrations, “Actress” is about a lot more than flailing show business aspirations.
On the surface, Burre’s hardships aren’t unique; it’s swiftly established that she abandoned her profession to take care of her children. But Greene — whose lyrical focus on alienated lives included “Fake It So Real” (amateur wrestlers) and “Kati With an I” (a Southern teen faces the onset of adulthood) — makes it clear that Burre faces a perilous identity crisis. First seen with her back to the camera and facing a sea of dirty dishes, her arm juts out in slo-mo, casually knocking a stray glass to the ground. In voiceover, she says, “I tend to break things.”
Viewed alongside Greene’s last two features, “Actress” completes a trilogy of probing looks at performance in real world circumstances. In “Kati With an I,” the young star’s constant reflections on her limited future belie her insecurities; similarly, the wrestlers’ mock aggression in “Fake It So Real” mask the legitimate frustrations that lurk beneath their violent displays. In “Actress,” Greene positions his star in the grips of inner turmoil while constantly battling to display self-confidence.
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But is she complicit in constructing this duality? Early on, sitting in the playroom of her home in Beacon, New York and surrounded by neatly organized toys, she claims that parenting has become her creative outlet — and then repeats the line again, as if rehearsing the lie she tells herself each day.
In contrast to Burre’s ubiquitous soul-searching, her husband remains a phantom-like figure, hovering nearby without explicitly attending her pity parties. Of course, Burre’s constant discussions of her heatless marriage, which culminate with a major development around the middle of the second act, exclusively reflect her perceptions. Her partner isn’t antagonized so much as marginalized. As Burre revisits the possibility of returning to show business, the validity of her earlier efforts gradually come into play.
Though her complaints occasionally reach a pathetic extreme, the story’s dramatic weight holds: She’s the embodiment of genuine talent squandered by personal hangups and debilitating gender barriers. “I gotta make money with this face,” Burre moans, but a dispiriting park bench conversation with an agent suggests that her creative passion runs counter to any entrepreneurial aspirations, and ultimately she’s trapped somewhere in between the two.
Greene fashions a narrative out of Burre’s disarray by capturing her in small asides in between the greater developments in her emerging midlife crisis. She reflects on her mistakes, rehearses and worries over the prospects of new roles, and recounts new developments at each turn. While Greene uses a traditional cinema verite approach, “Actress” feels more like a subjective window into its subject’s troubled consciousness than a naturalistic depiction of her experiences.
Even so, by virtue of Burre’s uneasy state of affairs, the movie delivers a canny look at the ills of the entertainment industry that gives it the presence of a modern day “Sunset Boulevard.” With fleeting glimpses of her brief stint on “The Wire,” and a dryly funny peek at Burre sifting through paltry royalty checks while her energetic daughter plays nearby, “Actress” presents a sharp contrast between the allure of the spotlight and the dull rhythms that continue once it recedes.
At times, Greene’s collage-like approach has an alienating effect, but even as the thread gets lost in a tunnel of fragments, “Actress” maintains an atmospheric focus that takes its cues from Burre’s undulating moods. During one marvelous tangent, she journeys to the city for a gig at downtown piano bar “The Duplex,” where she performs a soulful original composition with telling lyrics (“I’ve dealt with fools like you before”) that express her inner anguish at the hostile world around her. Such bursts of liveliness form an insightful contrast with Burre’s drab home routine — whether sending her kids off to school before gazing out the window at the falling snow, or rehearsing a new audition from the clutches of her couch, she’s constantly battling the pressures of despair.
Greene, who shot, cut and produced the movie with longtime collaborators Douglas Tirola and Susan Bedusa, tends to create dazzlingly textured experiences (and with his recent editing credit on the Sundance hit “Listen Up Philip,” he’s well positioned to gain further recognition for his directing efforts). “Actress” is an ideal illustration of his layered approach, as it presents Burre’s experiences in a masterfully assembled set of sounds and images. Among the most potent of these is a long take of Burre seated on the train, which gradually gains speed until it morphs into a dizzying blur, until Greene counters the movement with a sudden cut to the barren, frozen lake near her isolated home.
In these startling moments, “Actress” goes beyond its focus on the professional woes of its subject to explore her greater hardships in an indifferent world. It’s a story with universal appeal rendered in intimate flourishes. Precisely because of her constant prevarications and slip-ups, she provides the movie with its emotional anchor. By capturing her in a tortured journey to find the ideal performance, “Actress” gives it to her.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Premiering this week at the True/False Film Festival in Missouri, “Actress” will next play as the closing night entry at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s new “Art of the Real” series in late April. Strong reviews and support from the documentary community should yield a healthy response in limited release.