Subtly rebuking Tolstoy’s assertion that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, Morgan Dews’s austere, wrenching found-material doc pivots on bitter verbal (and occasionally physical) sparring that would likely be familiar to any American who grew up at the ragged end of the Eisenhower dream. Using a staggeringly thorough collection of audio recordings, home movies and photographs left behind by his maternal grandmother (most of which were inaccessible until after her death in 2001), the filmmaker pieces together a fascinating chronicle of a 1960s nuclear family coming apart at the seams, abetted by psychotherapeutic fads, institutionalized sexism and the looming countercultural A-bomb.
Dews culls a narrative out of such chaotic heartbreak, and only occasionally stoops to obviousness (the shot of a slow children playing traffic sign as one of his then-teenage uncles despairs over feeling “retarded” is plain cheap). The overall result is finally quite loving: He puts the miserable marriage of his grandparents, Allis and Charley, and its effects on their anguished brood (including his mom, Anne) into a liberating context unavailable to them at the time. Even as deeply flawed and unforgivably selfish as this couple was, Must Read After My Death finds something heroic in their resistance to a cultural template not of their making.