Published May 04, 2009There is a natural, almost traditionally narrative ease to 21 Below that makes it far more engrossing than the unflattering synopsis of "Jewish girl goes home to broken family" suggests. The documentary understands familial bonds and obligations, along with the sense of defeat when someone's cyclic pattern of negative behaviour proves too predictable and implacable to not want to walk away, which is what makes the film so simultaneously connecting and frustrating.
Aided by sharing the perspective of Sharon, the eldest and most stable sister in a middleclass Buffalo family, 21 Below follows her trip home to help with some family drama involving her younger sister Karen, who is 21 and pregnant with her third child. It seems that Karen, whose daughter Maya is dying from a rare degenerative disease, is shacked up with a drug dealing ex-convict that teaches her four-year-old son Brendan that Jay-Z has 4,000 guns and that New York is where the Puerto Rican Brothas are at.
These latter insights prove problematic to Brendan's grandmother, as hearing them coming out of her grandchild's mouth only reiterates how strongly she disapproves of Karen's choices, and how much she resents paying a mortgage to house her and her criminal boyfriend.
As the documentary progresses, Sharon expresses feelings of hostility and a desire to abandon her family in favour of her own, given that she has a stable husband and a baby of her own on the way. Economic concerns abound, as does the depressing realization that the only thing providing perspective to these people is the deteriorating health of Maya.
No conspiracies are revealed and no global messages are communicated but for the most part, Samantha Buck's documentary does exactly what it seeks to do, which is to examine the complexities, connections and disappointments of familial inter-workings and idiosyncrasies in a real and occasionally tragic manner. (IndiePix)