The Family I Had


An estranged mother and daughter face an uncertain future.

(2017) Documentary (Discovery/Smoke & Apple) Charity Lee, Ella, Paris, Becca, Kyla, Chaplain Donna, Khyman, Phoenix. Directed by Katie Green and Carlye Rubin

 

Certain things are just unthinkable. They aren’t possibilities most people ever have to consider. When we encounter them (generally in a news story or documentary) we are shocked and often we attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of those victimized. However, try as we might, we just can’t do it.

Charity Lee was working in a bar and grill one rainy Super Bowl Sunday near her home in Abilene, Texas when the police come to the bar and she is summoned to the manager’s office. Her little four-year-old girl Ella has been hurt. When she tries to get details, eventually the police admit that her baby is dead.

But that isn’t even the worst part; her son Paris, then 13 years old, murdered his little sister – strangling her and stabbing her 17 times with a kitchen knife. On the 911 call he sounds panicked and upset. He claims that he was hallucinating and thought that Ella was a demon.

How does one forgive a crime like that? If it is a stranger who committed the crime, it’s a bit easier I would imagine but when it’s your own flesh and blood – the son you carried for nine months, the boy who gave your life meaning and purpose – how do you forgive them when he takes your little baby away? Do you write him off, abandon him? Could you even try?

These are the impossible choices facing Charity and the filmmakers pull no punches but over the course of the 77 minute documentary they slowly reveal the other elements of the puzzle; Charity is a recovering heroin addict, her short-cropped hair and tattooed body proclaiming her intention to live outside the norm. We are introduced to Kyla, Charity’s mom from whom Charity has been estranged for years, even before the murder. It turns out that Kyla has some skeletons of her own in the closet including a whopper you won’t see coming. The apple may not fall very far from the tree after all.

I think this is one of those documentaries that is better viewed knowing as little as possible about the film when watching it. The revelations here aren’t “gotcha” moments by any means and while it may seem that there is a random element to how things are revealed, upon reflection I don’t think that’s the case as all. Green and Rubin unfold the story very much as you might hear it from the people involved themselves, with bits and pieces and fragments coming out in dribs and drabs. If you were to befriend Charity, chances are she wouldn’t hit you over the head with all of it at once. She would tell you about the horrific crime first and then slowly tell you other elements of the story as she gets to trust you. The storytelling, in that sense, is completely organic.

We meet Paris through a series of prison interviews and at first he comes off as a bright and fairly normal guy (he’s in his early 20s now). We also begin to learn that he is anything but normal; we are shown illustrations that he draws which are cleverly brought to life through the magic of computer animation. Glimpses of the darkness inside him make themselves known as we observe the disturbing pencil drawings; revelations from Charity also tell us, shockingly, that a psychiatrist warned of Paris’ potential homicidal tendencies more than a year before Ella’s murder.

We also view home movies of what appears to be a loving family with Paris doting on Ella. By all accounts the two were very close, making not just the fact that Paris murdered Ella so shocking but the brutality of the act comes as even more of a surprise. Even so, Charity at one point admits that she was afraid of her son even before he took her daughter’s life.

Charity has since had a third child, a beautiful little boy named Phoenix. Paris sends Phoenix letters with some fairly terrifying drawings and Charity admits that she is terrified of what Paris might do to Phoenix should Paris be released from prison which in about ten years he will be eligible to do. Charity clearly alternates between that fear and the desire to get her son the help he needs and that the Texas prison system is all too unwilling to provide. Charity is concerned and rightly so that Paris may leave the confines of the Texas penal system more of a monster than he was when he arrived.

Rubin and Green use only first names throughout the film, possibly to drive home the point that this could be any family. Certainly Charity’s wild child days and her general non-conformity will raise some eyebrows, but nobody who watches her with her kids will think anything less of her than being a supremely loving mother whose eyes alone reflect the grief and strain of having had to navigate an impossible situation. Regardless of what you think of her life choices, nobody should have to suffer as she has and continues to suffer to this day.

This documentary made it’s debut at the Tribeca Film Festival this past April and is currently airing on the Investigation Discovery channel but it shouldn’t be too long before it is available to stream. When it does, this is one film you should keep an eye out for particularly for those who are into true crime films. This is one of the best I’ve seen this year.

This is a searing documentary that will not leave your memory easily. There are those who no doubt will point to Charity and her checkered past with judgmental fingers, but it’s hard to do when you see how strong she is, how hard she tries and how she herself is growing and becoming better. One feels sympathy and might even wish that this woman and her family can find some sort of peace.

REASONS TO GO: A chilling look at how a seemingly normal, bright kid can be a dangerous sociopath. The dysfunctional family dynamic shown here raises some important questions. The animated drawings are nifty – but disturbing. The forgiveness can be transformational.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find this a little too shocking and disturbing to submerge themselves into.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug content and violent content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is partially set in Abilene, Texas which has more churches per capita than any other city in the United States.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Investigation Discovery
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Murder in Mansfield
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Atomic Blonde

Advertisements

A Murder in Mansfield


Some father-son chats are more intense than others.

(2017) Documentary (Cabin Creek) Collier Landry, Dr. John Boyle, Rusty Cates, Matt Trammel, Annie Trammel, Mark Caudill, Susan Messmore, Dave Messmore, George Ziegler, Susan Ziegler, Dr. Dennis Marikis, Bryan Neff, Sylvia Neff, Michelle Barth. Directed by Barbara Kopple

On December 30, 1989, Noreen Boyle – wife of a popular and charismatic doctor in Mansfield, Ohio – disappeared. 26 days later, she was found wrapped in a green plastic tarp below a concrete basement in a home in Erie, Pennsylvania that her husband had bought for his pregnant mistress, intending to move in. Noreen had asked for a divorce prior to her disappearance.

The good doctor was accused of the crime and put on trial. Certainly there was evidence – he had purchased a jackhammer two days before his wife disappeared, for example – but the most damning testimony was that of his then 12-year-old son Collier whose composed, almost eerily adult demeanor won a lot of people over. He became something of a local hero and was instrumental in getting the conviction of his dad.

More than a quarter century later, Collier – now using the surname Landry – is an L.A.-based filmmaker who is returning home to Mansfield to get some closure. He had undergone an ordeal that was simply unimaginable, losing his mother and father and adopted sister all within days. He was completely and utterly alone. The detective on the case, David Messmore and his wife Susan, were eager to adopt the young boy and young Collier wanted to live with them but a judge ruled that the Ziegler family instead would raise Collier. The young man was devastated at first but eventually accepted the situation and became close to his adopted family which enabled him to remain in Mansfield and keep his friends close.

Collier wants to reconnect with the people important to him but also get closure from his dad who continued to maintain his innocence from prison for 26 years. After his first parole hearing, John Boyle changed his tune somewhat to claim that Noreen had fallen accidentally and hit her head and that he was only guilty of trying to cover it up. Collier doesn’t believe it. Neither do we.

It’s hard not to be inspired by Collier Landry. If you spoke to him on the street, you’d never know he has such an awful tragedy in his past. He seems pretty well-adjusted and grounded and as we get details about his father’s neglect and abusive behavior, it’s a wonder he didn’t indulge in a violent lifestyle himself. Landry is certainly the star of the show, from the video of his testimony from the 1990 trial of his father (at the age of 12, sounding and acting more like an adult than most adults in similar circumstances would) to the jailhouse interview with his dad in which he asks him point blank “What happened that night?” followed by “Are you a sociopath?” Landry and Kopple clearly think that he is and you can’t really disagree.

This isn’t a true crime documentary in the strictest sense, although there are elements of it. This isn’t like anything you routinely see on Investigation Discovery or 48 Hours. This is rather more about the journey of Collier Landry, how he overcame the demons of his childhood to lead a productive and satisfying life. One has to admire his resilience and even now, 26 years after the crime, the town of Mansfield clearly still holds him dear to their hearts as a radio interview early on in the movie illustrates.

And yet Landry is still haunting by the crime, as well he should be. He spends time talking to a psychiatrist and to his adopted parents, asking them for their advice on meeting up with his dad. The confrontation, which takes place in prison, is not really the emotional payoff you’d think. As with most things in life, it doesn’t go exactly as we might hope and while Collier professes that he got the closure that he needed, it wasn’t the closure that he wanted. Life is funny like that sometimes.

This isn’t among Koppel’s best work (last year’s Miss Sharon Jones! was) but it still approaches true crime from the point of view of those left behind to deal with the loss of loved ones, something we rarely get with any detail from documentaries. The finished product here feels a bit unfinished, if you get my drift – there’s a lot of the story that feels unexplored and perhaps too much emphasis was placed on Collier’s confrontation with his dad which while packing a dramatic punch conceptually doesn’t really deliver it in reality. The real attraction here is Collier Landry himself and more time should have been spent on his journey than on his father’s. Either way, this is compelling drama and for those who like both character studies or true crime documentaries there is something  there for both camps.

The film made it’s world premiere earlier this evening (as it was published) at the prestigious DOC NYC festival, the largest film festival in the world devoted to documentaries. It should be playing the film festival circuit in the upcoming months with possible a limited release afterwards; if what you read here sounds interesting to you, keep an eye out for it.

REASONS TO GO: Landry is an inspiring subject. The interviews are less talking heads and more friends catching up. This is a home movie in the best possible sense.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie would have been better without the soap opera elements.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, adult themes and some gruesome images of a murder victim.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kopple has been making documentaries for more than 40 years, winning an Oscar for Harlan County USA.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Into the Abyss
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Sky and Ground