If you’re going to make an experimental film, you may as well swing big. That seems to be the motivation behind “Socks on Fire,” a detailed excavation of filmmaker Bo McGuire’s small family drama, which is at times amusingly irreverent while also being exhaustingly self-indulgent. Yet another entry into the genre-pushing category known as “documentary/narrative hybrid,” McGuire stitches unremarkable archival footage with more florid staged recreations, hiring actors to play various family members.
Since the triumphs of “Stories We Tell” and “The Act of Killing,” hybrid film has threatened to take over the documentary world, with seemingly every other festival title bearing some trait of the highly disputed label. While “Socks on Fire” deserves praise for nursing artistic ambitions beyond conventional non-fiction storytelling, it gets overly mired in its own lyricism. Lacking a truly compelling story, McGuire turns to florid experimentation to keep his film afloat. The result is an admirable first effort that contains flashes of cinematic beauty, but ultimately collapses under the weight of its lofty ambitions.
McGuire narrates the film in a heavy Southern drawl, opening with the loaded question: “What do you do with what the dead leave behind? Do you fight for it, or do you set it on fire?” These heavy-handed poetic musings provide the backbone of McGuire’s familial excavation, which charts the inheritance drama following the death of his grandmother, whom he calls Nanny. McGuire himself appears often in a powder blue suit and floral Hawaiian shirt, sporting a shaggy beard and smoking Virginia Slims. Appearing in the film alongside McGuire are his mother, godmother, uncle John, and aunt Sharon; the latter two and Nanny also show up as their younger selves, played by actor stand-ins.
The most inspired of these recreations is the choice to cast his homophobic Aunt Sharon with a queer male actor, who goes by the amazing name of Chuck Duck. Donning a feathered wig that screams “mom hair,” Duck imbues Aunt Sharon with a kind of self-righteous nobility while also channeling her hidden inner conflict. It’s a clever way to show the religious antagonist, who obviously did not agree to be in the film.
The film shows glimmers of potential in the transitional moments, when McGuire pulls back the curtain to reveal the real characters that populate his queer Alabaman universe. The best scene in the film shows Duck donning his aunt Sharon hair and make-up, going on about the leather bar in Birmingham where he once blew a disabled guy while his wife watched. Another delight comes when the camera follows two contemporary actors into the local hair salon before cutting to the dolled up duo stepping out the same door into a full 1970s flashback.
Other breaks in the fourth wall feel wildly unnecessary, like a visit to McGuire’s fifth-grade teacher, a gathering of all the women in his life, or asking a friend who never appears again to describe a Southern Belle. The family dynamics are also similarly haphazard, with too many details about certain relationships and not enough about others.
The fabulous Uncle John, for instance, deserved more screen time. As the target of Aunt Sharon’s ire and the center of the familial conflict, his story would have given the film the focus it so desperately needed. He’s a funny and commanding presence, lighting up the screen in his ruffled red gown while twirling his beloved batons. John is from an older generation of Southern gay men; one wonders about his life prior to the film, and how he survived all the years before his sister turned on him and tried to take his house away.
As a portrait of queer Southerners, “Socks on Fire” is a precious window into a community that is often misunderstood, if not rendered invisible, by most media. Some of the camera work is visually rich, and McGuire films his ordinary American family with such a gorgeous reverence that they almost glow. It’s a shame McGuire couldn’t move past his own drama to center the feast of rich characters around him, rather than turning his family tableau into a navel-gazing self-portrait.
“Socks on Fire” was set to premiere in documentary competition at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.