Early on in our introduction to Cindy – one of the five main characters in Nicolas Steiner’s documentary Above and Below – we see her hauling a discarded couch to restore her living room after the latest rain showers have decimated the makeshift home she shares with her partner Rick. She lives in a tunnel under the streets (another character Lalo lives also lives there), a mere stone’s throw away from the flashing lights of Las Vegas, hidden from the public eye. But as the saying goes, “it’ll all come out in the wash” in this nakedly honest portrait of five unusual Americans.
Much like Rick & Cindy, David is also susceptible to the whims of Mother Nature, having made his home in a solar-powered military bunker in the middle of the Californian desert. An openly religious man, he enjoys the peaceful solitude of his lonely existence after a few disastrous marriages. In contrast is the atheist April, a disillusioned army veteran who is now a member of the Mars Society desert research team. Putting her engineering training to good use, she spends much of her days in full astronaut gear to carry out assessments of the viability of life on Mars. All of these people arrived at their present circumstances from markedly different backgrounds, but they share a similar sense of individuality and unique definitions of “home”.
Like a collection of postcards from the edge, Steiner vividly documents the lives of these five individuals who have willingly detached themselves from normal civilization. Eschewing any explanatory captions or targeted interview questions to orient the viewer, he uses a primarily hands-off style to give these people a voice and for us to learn about them in their own words. The result is a true slice of life as we witness the danger, unpredictability and simplicity of their lives.
Admittedly, Steiner’s approach does give the narrative a shapelessness that unfortunately makes you feel the film’s length. But the film isn’t lacking in cinematic flair however. Markus Nestroy’s cinematography is certainly eye-catching, especially when focused on April’s exploits. The wide shots employed here capture the stark beauty of the barren landscape, easily conceivable as the playground for a grand space opera. In addition, the original music by Paradox Paradise is perfectly attuned to the dynamic tone of the film. The wide-ranging compositions convey the punk rock rebel attitude as well as the more bluesy melancholic moments, and even some esoteric electronica to reflect the characters’ alternative lifestyles.
But most of all, the film thrives on the fascinating perspectives of these people with their remarkable wisdom, zest for life and most notably, their unshakable pride. At one point, Lalo quotes Eleanor Roosevelt saying, “No one has the right to make you feel inferior without your consent.” And it’s this same non-judgemental approach that makes Above and Below so engaging and oddly life-affirming.
Above and Below opens the Village East in New York City April 15, 2016.