‘Almost There’ is an Almost Perfect Portrait of an Artist

Kartemquin Films

It’s not often that I’m glad a documentary loses my interest. Almost There is a film that benefits from having a few sluggish spots, because they allow for the sudden changes and pickups that follow to really pop. One turning point in particular didn’t just reel me back in, it made me more excited about what I was watching. Even though the twist itself is a real bummer.

Something is revealed about the focal character, an elderly outsider artist named Peter Anton, and it’s the kind of shocker documentarians can’t help but revel in, despite the personal feelings they may have toward the subject. Just before that moment, the film seems to be getting stuck. There’s been a direction to the man’s story, yet it’s a straight path to nowhere.

Perhaps the filmmakers, co-directors Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden, made a conscious decision to extend and emphasize that dullness. Almost There is one of the most interestingly self-aware docs I’ve seen in a while, transparent to the point that I believe any apparent flaw is there on purpose so we better appreciate the construction.

The story begins with the filmmakers discovering Anton hawking his art and doing portraits at a street festival near his hometown of East Chicago, Indiana. He seems like he could be a worthy subject for a doc, and he asserts this to be the case in a preliminary voiceover introduction, but it’s not until much later, when Anton reaches out to the directors insisting that his story is important, that they decide to make a project out of him.

At first, that project is more than just a film. Rybicky and Wickenden interfere rather than observe, trying to help Anton get an art show and attempting to get a publishing deal for his most distinct works, a series of autobiographical scrapbooks. They also show great concern for the man’s living conditions, as he resides in the mold-infested basement of his dilapidated childhood home.

Anton is like a hodgepodge of many notable documentary characters, including the Beales of Grey Gardens (complete with the cats and the holes in the ceiling) and plenty other eccentric outsider artists, such as Henry Danger (posthumously documented in the brilliant In the Realms of the Unreal). He’s tragically strange, fascinating but also rather familiar if you’ve seen enough of the films about the latter group of subjects. A simple profile spotlighting his odd life and creations isn’t enough.

So the film takes on a form almost like the multimedia collages found in the scrapbooks, layered and complex. Rybicky regularly appears on screen, usually in frustrated interactions with his subject, and quickly takes over as the narrator, making him come across as the true main character. He occasionally diverts from following Anton to document a personal visit with his mother and artist brother, of whom the project has reminded him.

In theory, I’m against many of the filmmaking choices here, especially the self-satisfying do-good interference and the steering of a story that for the most part the directors have caused if not devised. And Rybicky’s self-important introspections are usually grating in a doc of this type. But it all works on screen, primarily because of how it’s formatted. There’s additional manipulation in the storytelling, which can be a problem for many viewers. Not for me. I prefer to experience surprises as the filmmakers did.

What’s not surprising is the fact that Wickenden, prior to and while making his directorial debut here, is a crafty editor whose resume includes Steve James’s The Interrupters, this year’s riveting Best of Enemies and the recent Oscar nominee Finding Vivian Maier, which is also an ethically troubling artist profile that is impossible to dismiss because it’s so well put together.

A lot of documentary stories come about in the editing. This one clearly came together in the filming, which took nearly a decade, and then was refined in the editing. The decision to let Rybicky (who is also a first-time director) and Anton be co-protagonists is essential in order for us to stay somewhat detached from the artist, so when we learn what we learn about him we don’t want to just turn the film off. We want to see how it affects Rybicky in particular and the film itself.

Throughout Anton’s life, people have latched on and served him in caretaker roles, picking up his groceries and whatnot. A few of them are interviewed in the film. The directors find themselves in the same position, and they slowly realize that Anton is too demanding of and difficult to people who want to help him — some of whom he clearly manipulates into wanting to help him.

Almost There is also a caretaker of sorts, in cinematic form. Anton brings the doc into being so that it can help him out, help get his story out into the world, and as happens with many of his attendants the film is taken advantage of and is victim to his dishonesty and his unwillingness to improve his life. But like his personal helpers over the years, it never totally abandons him.

The audience is invited in to care about the character, too, though he’s never depicted as likable so much as compelling, so we experience him and the want for his success and betterment through Rybicky and Wickenden and the rest. And whether or not we like him, we are hooked — and re-hooked as needed — by the film’s storytelling and portraiture, not the story and its subject.

Too many films about people like Anton suffer for just assuming we’ll agree that their subjects are interesting. This one puts in the work and gives us reason to find his life and work interesting. Contrary to what he believes, outside of his own artistic compulsion to be such, Anton is not that important, nor is his art that significant. This film, on the other hand, is both.

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(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.