‘We Always Lie to Strangers’ Review: Not the Look at Branson that We Need
I spent a not-inconsiderable part of my youth thinking that Branson, Missouri, was a place invented by The Simpsons for a recurring gag. Despite my sheltered conservative upbringing, my family never took a vacation to this strange city, this Los Angeles of family friendliness. Branson still seems slightly unreal. It’s a town with a population of a little over 10,000 that attracts more than 7 million visitors a year, netting billions in profit. It has more than 100 theater venues that boast a collective seat count higher than that of Broadway. And all of this is in the service of entertainment that is free of sexual content, swearing, violence, drugs or alcohol, or anything else remotely upsetting to those with delicate sensibilities.
Filmmakers AJ Schnack and David Wilson spent five years visiting Branson for We Always Lie to Strangers. Mainly, they followed the ups and downs of four families working in the clean showbiz industry. The Presley’s are a Branson institution, their patriarch having founded the very first of the city’s regular shows back in 1967. Today, Raeanne Presley is Mayor of the town, and it’s through her that we see many of the social troubles it faces, especially in the face of the recession. The Lennons are an anomaly, a clan of progressives living in a decidedly conservative locale in an overwhelmingly red state. So too are Chip Holderman and Ryan Walton, a gay couple dealing with incidental bigotry while trying to make a living. Receiving less attention are the Tinocos, a newer act centered around their horrid singing 4-year-old.
The film’s title refers to an Ozark folk saying and the idea that urban legends of backwards hillbillies stem from the locals telling tall tales to any outsiders who ventured by. Times have changed. The outsiders get what seems to be the unvarnished truth, and the myth of Branson is stripped away instead of reinforced. Not much distinguishes these people from the rest of the Middle American Evangelical population. That comes across as more of a drawback in the film than anything else. It feels like it could have taken place anywhere, which is a problem when the setting offers unique opportunities for storytelling.
Still, the doc finds moments of power. It wouldn’t make sense if filmmakers followed the same people around for five years and never caught anything of worth. There is the moment when Chip, barely keeping it together for the camera, relays a viciously homophobic text message from a former in-law. There’s Raeanne’s distress over her elderly mother’s failing health. There’s not a hint of the “big city” filmmakers leering at these hicks with disdain. I’ve read comparisons to the work of Christopher Guest, but I honestly don’t see that tone (though my growing up in a conservative environment may have inured me to its everyday idiosyncrasies). I think that such a reading of the film says more about the critic than anything else.
At nearly two hours, We Always Lie to Strangers drastically overstays its welcome. It might have been worth it if the movie delved into Branson itself, beyond the functional matters of how it operates. This is a place built on kitsch and nostalgia, a whole industry that caters to people’s desire to escape from the unpleasantness of the real world. We are long overdue for a serious interrogation of innocuous entertainment as a means of mollification, of distraction. Maybe it would have been alright for this film to ignore such obvious issues if its character work were something special, but it never finds more than scattered bits of interest. The doc doesn’t have much more weight than the average Branson show.
We Always Lie to Strangers is now available on DVD via Virgil Films Entertainment.