Peanut Gallery (2017) REVIEW – A Harrowing Watch
Peanut Gallery is a haunting documentary about grief, loss, memory and digging below the surface.
Originally released in 2015 on the film festival circuit, but just now seeing wide-release on VOD, Molly Gandour’s Peanut Gallery is an intense documentary that examines grief and denial of grief.
The first thing you really notice about Peanut Gallery is the detachment in the technique. From the beginning, there are long(ish) static camera shots of two or three members of Gandour’s family, usually Gandour and a parent, sitting around the dinner table. There are also static shots of the family in therapy, sitting on a therapist’s couch. The long faux-objective shots perfectly reflect the way that Gandour herself seems detached from the emotional core of what she’s trying to accomplish with the film: confronting her feelings and the feelings of her parents about the death of her older sister Aimee, who died of leukemia in her early teens.
Gandour was in her mid-twenties when she started work on the film. A short film director and a producer on the social justice documentary GasLand, she returns to her midwest home from New York City for a month or so to sort things out and to try to get her parents to really confront, or, at the very least, talk about their child’s slow decline and death. Shot much like a home movie without any of the polish you expect from, say, a documentary on Netflix, the film is very personal, autobiographical, raw.
Confronting those feelings which Gandour and her parents have tried their best to avoid is also a central theme. As with most autobiographical documentaries, Peanut Gallery can’t help but be self-reflexive, asking unconscious questions about the invasiveness of the camera, especially during those moments where Gandour brings her camera into the family therapist’s office. Here we have, once again, an example of Gandour’s choice to match form and subject. It’s a messy way of doing things, but it gets the job done, and gets us closer to the messy lives of the film’s subjects as they start to search within themselves.
All sorts of “mistakes” are left in. The camera gets bumped, the framing is imperfect, often cutting off parts of a person’s face. People walk haphazardly in and out of the frame. And Gandour chooses to shoot pictures and diary entries written by herself and her sister directly from her camera, rather than having them scanned and then adding movement digitally, as is par for the course in more slick documentaries.
Gandour certainly doesn’t seem to be criticizing this more formal kind of documentary. The technique is used because it gets to the the heart of the subjective nature of her own psyche as she confronts herself and her memories of her sister and her relationship to her and her parents. Gandour experiences things as an adult that her sister will never have a chance to experience. “I didn’t want to be where she’d never been,” Gandour says near the end of the film. It haunts her that she experienced things as a teenager and an adult that her sister will never get to experience. And despite a plethora of home movies, photos, scrapbooks and diaries of her sister, she finds that as she grows older, her memories are fading. Why? Because, as close as these objects and mementos get, they can’t totally reproduce, exactly, the emotions of the moments as they were experienced.
There’s inter-family conflict in Peanut Gallery, sure, but it never comes off as exploitative. This is clearly a family that loves each other dearly, though they very often can’t figure out how to express their love. They’re incredibly sympathetic people who desperately want to connect to each other, if only they could figure out how. There are no huge breakthroughs during the film, no final confrontation that results in catharsis and epiphany. But the family starts to understand each other a little bit more. Peanut Gallery is a harrowing watch, and you’re always rooting for this family.