Directed by Nick Brandestini. 14A. 86 min. Opens Aug. 24 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
There’s a remarkably high standard for eccentricity among the inhabitants of the tiny desert town for which Nick Brandestini’s documentary is named. By the time Hank and Connie—the friendly elderly couple who are two of the film’s principal subjects—explain how they’ve taken up paganism as their religious practice of choice, it seems not just unsurprising but downright reasonable. The same is true of a moment that arrives not long after, when a visit to the Barker Ranch—where the Manson Family once holed up—prompts Hank to offer his opinion on ol’ Charlie: “I met the man and he is a piece of shit.”
Make no mistake: Things are different in Darwin, California. Named after a prospector who made a silver find in this godforsaken corner of Death Valley, the community has seen its fortunes rise and fall since settlement began in the 1870s. It’s now home to a few dozen folks located in a smattering of idiosyncratic domiciles. Their numbers include a grizzled old miner, an anarchist, a rock artist, Hank and Connie’s transgendered son, and the great-nephew of one of Hollywood’s original moguls. No one but the post office’s sole employee seems to have a job. But they get on all right, or at least know well enough to give each other the distance they want.
And for all their strangeness, Brandestini gives these people the respect they deserve, too. With its stark cinematography and an appropriately desolate score, Darwin is more akin to a Walker Evans photograph than the many docs about small-town kooks that have appeared in the three decades since Errol Morris’ Vernon, Florida. And while viewers may initially look askance at these dwellers of America’s furthest fringes, the film’s gradual revelations about the pains they carry—as well as their stubborn capacity for hope, joy and camaraderie—proves there’s nothing very different about them at all.