I must confess that Phyllis and Harold, married for 59 years in what is described by their filmmaker daughter as a disastrous marriage, remind me of my own parents.
While I'd hesitate, actually refuse, to refer to my own parents' marriage as "disastrous," after 45 years together I find myself still looking at them rather often and thinking how amazing it is that two people who are so different can remain together for so incredibly long. They are, by my definition, "dysfunctionally compatible."
In Phyllis and Harold, director Cindy Kleine crafts an astoundingly frank journey through her parents' marriage by weaving together reportage, cinema verite' and animation to uncover family secrets and to reveal, after her father's death, a story that couldn't possibly have been told while he was still alive.
Part Capturing the Friedmans and part Scenes From a Marriage, Kleine's film is an at times uncomfortably honest and intimate family portrait is a film that makes one question whether or not "happily ever after" is the stuff of fairy tales as it becomes increasingly apparent that the reality of the marriage between her father and mother is really more a long protected facade of familial duty and role responsibility.
How much you embrace Phyllis and Harold is going to depend almost entirely upon how much you embrace the recent documentary trend towards self-revelatory expose' filmmaking in which directors essentially journey back through their own life experiences in the hope of discovering answers, solutions or simply healing. Early on in Phyllis and Harold it becomes apparent that Kleine's father was a bit of a control freak, while her mother was significantly more guarded and emotionally unavailable. It seems less than ironic that much of Phyllis and Harold feels both tightly controlled and emotionally detached by Kleine as she borders on invasiveness in the way she takes a "bull in a china shop" approach to interviewing her mother and exploring what feels like her own unresolved issues about her parents and her upbringing.
By today's standards, the revelations in Phyllis and Harold aren't particularly groundbreaking nor revelatory. They are simply indications that, much like the majority of American families, all in the household wasn't quite as it seemed.
While Phyllis and Harold most assuredly won't be for everyone, the film itself has already garnered significant support from the likes of award-winning documentarian Ken Burns, director Mike Nichols and at least a couple national critics who are singing the film's praises and helped the film get a limited arthouse release distributed by Rainbow Releasing.
Phyllis and Harold picks up its pace and becomes infinitely more interesting in the film's final third, a third marked by Phyllis's own re-igniting with a love from her past with some assistance from her daughters. It is when Phyllis and Harold is exploring these themes of lost love memories that the film is most interesting, but even in these moments the film itself too often plays like dramatized family movies with more drama than family.
The weaving in of animation is an unnecessary gimmick that adds nothing to the film's presentation and, in fact, only serves to mute its emotional impact even further.
For those of you who can identify with the film's fundamental storyline or for whom a fascination with train wreck families exists, Phyllis and Harold may contain enough authentic drama to hold your interest. For most Americans whose families are dramatic enough, Phyllis and Harold is a wholly unnecessary experience.