‘Torn’ Review: First-Time Filmmaker Max Lowe Excavates His Own Family in Intimate, Honest Documentary

Telluride: Max Lowe was just 10 when his father, famous climber Alex Lowe, perished in an avalanche. Nearly 20 years later, he goes looking for answers.
'Torn' Review: Max Lowe Excavates His Own Family in Intimate Doc

Max Lowe is in every frame of “Torn.” Even when the filmmaker isn’t appearing on-screen as a subject in his debut documentary, he’s behind the camera, or his voice is carrying over to ask a probing question. Mostly, though, Max Lowe’s own pain and curiosity suffuse each second of the intimate “Torn,” which seeks to excavate the complex history of Lowe’s own family, one previously available to the public in bits and pieces, and only now being told on their own terms.

When Lowe was just 10 years old, his father — the world-class “best there ever was” mountain climber Alex Lowe — perished in an avalanche while on an expedition in Tibet. For years, Alex and his wife Jenni had attempted to find a balance between his climbing career (Alex, both luckily and unluckily, reached the heights of his fame just as the possibility of climbing as an actual vocation was possible, thanks to the rise of sports sponsorships) and his status as a family man. It was, as nearly every interview in “Torn” tells us, a nearly impossible ask. It is also one that Alex and Jenni’s three sons, including eldest Max, middle child Sam, and youngest Isaac, still struggle with today. Did their father love climbing more than he loved them?

You don’t need to know about Alex Lowe and his legacy to appreciate what “Torn” is about. This is a story about a family.

The general perimeters of “Torn” — a filmmaker using his feature-length debut to tell his own family’s tale — ensure that it will be almost painfully intimate, but Lowe’s unabashedly searching nature and his family’s open-heartedness set the film a cut above others like it. Lowe, it seems, has always wanted answers, but was too afraid to ask them; now, with the relative distance of a camera and the formalities of “making a documentary,” he can finally do just that. That doesn’t mean, however, that the moments in which his “subjects” — like his plain-speaking mother Jenni — literally reach out to comfort Max the son while he’s attempting to be Max the filmmaker don’t feel enormously moving. They do, but Lowe’s real skill is at finding the line between something feeling too personal and being compelling for even the most removed of audiences.

The film is rife with archival footage of Alex, everything from professional interviews, videos from his actual expeditions, and his own personal camcorder snippets. There are scenes of Alex climbing (and falling), mugging at the camera (and not paying attention to it), doting on his family (and doting on his work). As adults, his sons refer to him as “Alex” almost exclusively, but in clips from their childhood, the boys’ admiration and affection for their father is clear. But this is not a hagiographic work, and while Alex’s climbing accomplishments were huge, Lowe and his family are still grappling with what he meant as a man.

Lowe, who has previously directed a handful of shorts, artfully arranges unique side-by-side sequences, placing a picture of his father next to a similar snap of himself or his brothers. Footage of Alex climbing fades into the boys and Jenni making similar treks. The family melts into one unit, an unfussy way of binding a clan that has, in many ways, been torn into different directions over the years. Stunning vistas and wide open spaces are part of the family’s very DNA, and “Torn” boasts many of them, though Lowe seems disinterested in hyping up the view just for the hell of it. An occasionally conspicuous orchestral score threatens to overwhelm some of the film’s more dramatic moments, which do not require any additional material to make them sting.

Somewhat unconventionally plotted and paced, the film’s first hour stays mostly close to home, interviewing the various members of the family inside their cozy Montana house, flashing back to tell the story of Alex and Jenni’s romance, digging into the archives for more Alex material. Lowe and his family chat, both in formal settings and just as a regular clan, while the fledgling filmmaker occasionally heads off to view more archival material from new sources. That some of that material chronicles the last days of his father’s life is never glossed over, but Lowe is so dedicated to finding the truth of this story that he rarely allows the doc to fall into emotion for emotion’s sake.

That’s not to say that emotion doesn’t run through “Torn,” but the tension between what Lowe is trying to find as a director and also a subject adds a fascinating layer. Lowe, typically perched behind the camera, reels off questions that aren’t exactly leading, but that come with an edge, mostly because he’s never pretending to be objective. An outsider asking you what you thought of your husband’s dangerous career is very different than your son asking you that same question nearly two decades after his death. “Torn” — and the family at its heart — never act as if Lowe is working at a remove. How could they?

What happened to Alex Lowe is meat enough for its own film, but “Torn” also chronicles what happened after his death: a deeper continuation of his family, a love story, and a tale referred to as a “soap opera” on at least one magazine cover from the time. Alex’s best friend and long-time climbing partner Conrad Anker — introduced via caption simply as “Conrad” — bridges the gap, uniquely able to speak to both the before and the after. (What happened with Anker and the Lowes is hardly secretive, but Lowe seems to want to unspool the story in his own way, so we won’t “spoil” anything here; suffice it to say, it’s both moving and complicated.)

The film’s final act, however, takes a leap, flashing back to 2016, when the saga of Alex’s death finally earned its own ending. Like so much of Alex’s life, it was chronicled throughout the media, both by mainstream outlets and sports-oriented publications, but the power of it will likely land even with those who already know how this all ends. Lowe and his family are never resistant to showing their emotion on camera, but the final act of “Torn” sees a younger Lowe mourning in a much more expected manner, turning the camera on himself and not just letting us in, but allowing himself out. 

Max Lowe is in every frame. So is Alex Lowe.

Grade: B

“Torn” premiered at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival. NatGeo will release it later this year.

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