BFI LFF Review: Monrovia, Indiana (2018)

In Monrovia, Indiana, veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman compassionately chronicles life in small-town America.


by Joel Whitaker

Monrovia, Indiana

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

In his shortest film for 17 years (still clocking in at 143 minutes) Frederick Wiseman delivers a portrait of what is increasingly being referred to as “the real America”. Monrovia is a small town in the state of Indiana and following on from the themes he delivered in Belfast, Maine (1999), Wiseman examines how its community works.

Indiana is of course a red state, but Wiseman doesn’t concern himself with this. The people who live in Monrovia have problems, mainly working-class problems, but the film stays incredibly focused. We see town planners discussing the town’s growth, a divisive issue. Wiseman makes it clear that the political issues facing the town are seen to be strictly local.

The film opens up with us observing the farmland of Monrovia. We watch as massive farming machinery dance beautifully across the screen as though they were choreographed. From here we go on to meet various people across town. We see the city planners as they try to decide whether population growth will be a blessing or a curse. They go on to discuss the subdivision of Homestead, a newly built and contentious area of the town due to its apparent high crime rates. We later discover that the town’s infrastructure is spread so thinly that Homestead’s fire hydrants are out of service.

Moving across town we also visit institutions such as the vets, where we see a dog undergo surgery, a graphic scene. We see Dawg House Pizza, and observe the staff working there. We watch as the Lion’s Club undertake a lengthy debate as to where to place two new benches they are funding, should they be by the bank? By the library? By the school?

In the high school gymnasium, a pop-up mattress shop has come to town. We watch citizens of Monrovia test out the beds and see as a salesman explains the benefits of a mattress protector. The film shows us customers at a gun store assessing the newest products. A Masonic ceremony takes place for a man who has been with the Masons for 50 years. The film shows us the towns hairdressers, its tattoo artists, the local bar. Over the course of the film the rhythm and flow of the town’s way of life become clear.

A key theme in the film in faith, something clearly important to Monrovia. The film lets us view both a wedding and a funeral. The wedding being a joyous and incredibly religious affair, with the couple receiving a crucifix shaped sculpture indicating God’s role in their love. The funeral sees a member of the clergy deliver a moving and deeply spiritual eulogy for a woman who has recently passed. This long and winding eulogy is, surprisingly, the only aspect of the film that seemed to drag on. Other than this anomalous moment the film’s pace is and, as Wiseman does so well, turns what could seem mundane into something fascinating. Even the purchasing of a mattress protector.

“Life in big American cities, on the east and west coasts, is regularly reported on and I was interested in learning more about life in small town America and sharing my view,” Wiseman said in an official statement. Monrovia, Indiana manages to capture this often underrepresented yet vital American lifestyle. Wiseman shows us how important faith and spirituality are to the community, and in his typical style allows the people of Monrovia to reveal their own customs, interests, and beliefs to the camera uninhibited. The film perfectly captures this community, and their way of life, a way of life alien to many of us. Wiseman said that he wanted to share his view of this way of life, and the film he has delivered is a deeply compassionate and wholesome portrait of it.

Monrovia, Indiana screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 14 and 21 October 2018.

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