(2020) Documentary (Gravitas) Peggy Phillips, Zach Marion, Suzanne Smith, Marguerite Nocera, Doug Scott, Vondie Stinet, Susan Farrar, Doug Cox, Jody Brooks, Steve Lawson, Jewell Scott, Curtis Ottinger, Evelyn Burroughs, Trey Monroe, Tom Bokkin, Jimmy Phillips, Melanie Marion Oliveira. Directed by Zach Marion
We often are confronted in our lives with tragedy, injustice, or a combination thereof. It can shape our lives and alter our perception of who and what we are permanently. Some respond to it better than others.
Peggy Phillips was an ordinary 19-year-old girl living in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1962. While her parents were authoritarian and strict Baptists, Still, she was fairly happy but like most girls her age, she chafed a bit at her parents restrictive household, and then her naivete led to her being sexually assaulted by a married man (who told her she was separated) and to a pregnancy.
At that time, there was a whole lot of stigma attached with an unwed mother, a stigma visited both on the mother and the child. Despite the fact that Peggy was unwilling and in truth a victim of rape, her father was as cold as ice to her. This had to be her fault, somehow. There was no question that the baby would be given up for adoption, except for one thing – Peggy didn’t want to.
Peggy’s dad threatened to disown her and throw her out of the house; even Peggy’s obstetrician counseled her to give up the baby for adoption but Peggy was adamant. The stubborn girl was sent to live with her aunt and eventually, the big day came. Peggy was in a fog of anesthetic and remembers nothing about the delivery. She awoke the next morning, only to be told that the baby had died shortly after birth. Peggy was heartbroken but went on to live her life, but the relationship between her and her father was soured forever.
However, incredibly, her mother on her deathbed confessed to Peggy that the child hadn’t really died; her father had given the baby up for adoption, forging her signature on the paperwork. Now, Peggy went on a crusade to find her lost baby. At last, a woman stepped forward; Suzanne Smith, who had been adopted by neighbors of Peggy’s family. A lot of signs pointed to Smith’s story being true, but her testimony was unreliable to say the least; she was a chronic drug addict who was in and out of prison. Still, Peggy formed a bond with Suzanne and began to think of her as a daughter.
Peggy had a lawyer named Doug Cox on her side, and the grave where Peggy’s baby had supposedly been buried was exhumed. The remains of an infant were found. There were some things that didn’t add up though, but nevertheless Peggy was eager to have a DNA test done to prove once and for all the infant in the grave those 30 years were not hers. Unfortunately, Peggy didn’t have the funds to get a DNA test done so definitive proof remained elusive.
Years later, aspiring filmmaker Zach Marion ran across Peggy’s story while researching another potential subject for a documentary. He decided this would make the perfect subject for a feature and asked Peggy if it would be okay to do an interview. Peggy agreed and it led to a detective story as Zach set out to obtain the answers to the questions that had essentially defined the now septuagenarian Peggy her entire adult life.
Marion sets this up essentially like a detective story, but doesn’t succumb to the tropes of a true crime documentary – at least, not much. Peggy isn’t the most charismatic subject in the world, but then again it’s hard to blame her for being reserved; most of the people she trusted in the world had betrayed her about as completely as a human can betray another. She remains good-hearted and optimistic, although she seems to be less interested in finding facts than in having her hopes validated. It is a little troubling to think that is essentially how our political decisions are being made these days.
There are a lot of twists and turns here, not all of them expected. Generally, it is never a good idea for a documentary filmmaker to become part of the story, but Marion becomes inexorably linked to Peggy’s story and so the cinematic faux pas doesn’t sting quite as much. The story is compelling enough that you’ll want to sit through it and find out what happened. The big issue is that Peggy is a bit of a wet noodle as a subject, but with good reason. She’s been through a lot in her life and her situation is essentially a poster child to how women have been regarded for centuries. You will feel sympathy for her, but there is a feeling of resignation in her that may prevent you from thoroughly relating to her as you might ordinarily.
REASONS TO SEE: Keeps you guessing.
REASONS TO AVOID: Peggy hides her emotions so well that it is hard to get caught up in how sad the story really is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a mention of a rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peggy suffered from Parkinson’s Disease and generally had to walk with the aid of a cane towards the end of her life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Three Identical Strangers
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: In Silico