'October Country' a vivid story of an unhappy family 

The unhappy American family returns to the documentary screen in “October Country,” Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s portrait of Mosher’s struggling upstate New York kin.

No mere trip through dysfunction gulch, the film is a human, graceful,  original mini-gem.

Combining standard broken-family ingredients — domestic violence and child abuse — with fresh faces and a resonantly site-specific setting, the film follows the Moshers over the course of a year at and near their home in New York’s Mohawk Valley.

Halloween celebrations (the film’s spirited alternative to Thanksgiving as the day when troubled families’ ghosts come out) bookend the action. Three Mosher generations, with self-awareness and resignation, share their stories.

Grandmother Dottie is the family’s saddened but solid pillar. Her husband, Don, a retired cop, remains traumatized by war experiences.

Their daughter, Donna, who got pregnant way too young, has endured numerous abusive relationships. Donna’s 19-year-old daughter, Daneal, mother of 2-year-old Ruby, is repeating Donna’s mistakes.

Daneal’s sister, Desi, a spunky, precocious 11-year-old, is both the family’s hope for triumph and the movie’s source of sunshine.

Don’s Wiccan sister, Denise, whom Don doesn’t speak to, and Dottie and Don’s foster son, Chris, who can’t stop thieving, complete the bunch.

As troubled-family documentaries go, the film contains neither the riveting story line of “Capturing the Friedmans” nor the urgent sizzle of “Tarnation.” At only 80 minutes, it feels a tad slight. But this is stylish and excitingly worthy nonfiction filmmaking.

Donal Moser, a photographer whose photos of his family inspired the film, and Palmieri, whose resume includes music videos, have combined insider knowledge with outsider perspective to create an engrossing portrait that is simultaneously down-to-earth intimate and third-person reflective.

While it may seem irregular that the film doesn’t mention co-director Mosher’s relation to the on-screen Moshers, Mosher’s personal ties to the movie’s subjects have clearly enhanced their effectiveness before the camera.

The movie also benefits from the filmmakers’ talent for reaping emotional payoffs from small, everyday moments — the sadness registered on Dottie’s face in regard to Chris’ downslide, presented in nonexploitative close-up, is heartbreaking — and captures the economic climate and natural splendor of the Appalachian landscape with visuals that are surreal and beautiful.

Such imagery ranges from autumn-colored flora to a fireworks show viewed from the local Walmart.

October Country

Three stars

Directed by Michael Palmieri, Donal Mosher
Not rated
Running time 1 hour 20 minutes

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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