Documentarians who participate in their own projects run the risk of disappearing up their own backside with the movie in tow, especially when the subject is a family member. Happily, Andrew Neel’s film about his grandmother, painter Alice Neel, in which he interrogates the messy convergence of family history, personal psychology and artistic inspiration, makes for fascinating viewing.
Neel the younger assembles an impressive collection of stills and archival film and video footage of Alice over the years, from an early sojourn in Cuba to a stint with the WPA and her flight from the Village art scene for the less-rarefied confines of Spanish Harlem. Neel also interviews his father, uncle and half cousins—as well as various art historians and other painters—to reveal Alice as a complicated, emotionally fragile artist whose institutionalization, bad marriages and critical marginalization emboldened rather than diluted her vision.
This is warts-and-all material, and Neel doesn’t sugarcoat the fallout from Alice’s dedication to her work; her sons Richard and Hartley (the director’s dad, whom he appears to surreptitiously film at one point) are particularly candid about her maternal ambivalence. The effect is spirited rather than incriminating and, bolstered by Jonah Rapino’s contemplative score, as piercingly detailed as one of Alice’s mesmerizing portraits. (Opens Fri; Cinema Village.) — Mark Holcomb