November 14th, 2022
MOVIE: SAM NOW
DIRECTED BY: REED HARKNESS
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 ½ STARS (Out of 4)
Previously created home movies are all over many of the documentaries at this year’s DOC NYC festival. Reed Harknesss and his half-brother Sam made many such movies in their teens. Reed being the older brother got Sam to do all sorts of things, including creating an alter ego known as “The Blue Panther,” and Sam blissfully went along and helped to create some great video memories. In 2000, when Sam was 13 his mother Jois disappeared. She was nowhere to be found. There were no notes, no forwarding details, nothing. Afterwards, Reed, Sam, their brother Jarod, and father Randy went about their lives not knowing what had happened to Jois. A few years later, Reed gets an idea: What if they made a film with the goal being to try to find Jois? Sam, being game for anything, goes along with it. The new documentary Sam Now, takes us on that journey.
What’s great about the film is how it demonstrates the resilience of Sam who comes across as a teen full of life with a great smile and positive energy. Reed gives his all to Sam (they had different mothers) as they travel from Seattle down to Southern California with a lead. When Jois is located a whole new chapter in their lives begin. The film, which is filled with footage from this journey in the mid-2000s, then takes us into not only Jois’s story, her feelings, and rationalizations, but also the ultimate effects of this abandonment on Sam over the next fifteen years.
It’s amazing to watch how Sam changes from being purely innocent as an adolescent to a much more reflective and emotionally wounded adult. The fact that Reed has all of this footage and organizes it in a satisfying chronological order is a testament to his own commitment to Sam’s welfare, love, and friendship. Their bond is unbreakable and sits at the heart of the film. Many of the family and friends that are interviewed about Jois have interesting responses. This is not a particularly feelings-centered family as they don’t wallow in the mistakes made by Jois.
As a viewer, this can be a bit frustrating as it often feels like the elephant in the room is not being discussed. What exactly happened with Jois? How did they feel about it? Do they process their thoughts about her internally? But these questions are also what’s also great about the film. Yes, some of them are emotionally crippled and worry about the effects abandonment has on other relationships and if the cycle could be repeated, but they each handle their emotions in their own unique ways. Some are more forthcoming about their cathartic moments while others let feelings remain bottled up inside. It’s a fascinating look at one family’s ability to deal with something so seemingly destructive.
All the while, the film is beautifully assembled with some very creative editing and whimsical visuals, such as a matchbox car traveling on a physical map to show the brothers’ journey across the west coast. There are stimulating changes in music, film stock, color, and black and white footage. It’s a wonderful collage of styles that stretches from standard talking head interviews to sometimes resembling avant-garde visual imagery.
I’m quite fond of these films which include so much footage created innocently in the past. Parts of this reminded me of the much darker but devastatingly effective 2003 film Tarnation, created by Jonathan Caouette. But while that experience feels a bit more cynical, Sam Now illustrates how moving on and forgiving can go a long way to leading a satisfying life. I found the whole experience quite inspiring.
SAM NOW IS CURRENTLY PLAYING AS PART OF THE DOC NYC FILM FESTIVAL. IT CAN ALSO BE STREAMED VIA THE FESTIVAL WEBSITE AT DOCNYC.NET THROUGH NOVEMBER 27TH.
3 1/2 STARS
Written by: Dan Pal