Assisted Living

Laura Clifford 
Assisted Living

Assisted Living
Robin Clifford 
As the staff and residents of the Masonic Homes of Kentucky are interviewed about the institution's former slacker/stoner janitor Todd (Michael Bonsignore), flashbacks to his last days of work chart the growth of his relationship with Mrs. Pearlman (Maggie Riley) as she slips into dementia in "Assisted Living."

Twenty-two year old writer/director/producer Elliot Greenebaum began this film as an exercise in melding documentary and fiction filmmaking.  While the documentary's raison d'etre seems purposely misleading, implying notoriety for its subject, the story which resulted amidst a functioning elder care facility is unique and bittersweet.

The home's administrator Hance Purcell (Clint Vaught) believes Todd showed early promise before slipping into his pattern of absenteeism, lateness and inappropriate behavior.  Receptionist Nancy Jo (Nancy Jo Boone) asks Malerie (Malerie Boone), the daughter squirming on her lap, if she remembers Todd (of course, he was a sort of playmate), then tells us she doesn't know where he works now.  Then we see Todd, looking like Ron Livingston after a weekend bender, arrive at work and get mildly chastised for being too late to help with bingo.  All day, when Todd's not outside taking an elicit hit off a joint or desultorily pushing a mop around, he behaves like a big kid - playing Scrabble with residents, scooting around in one of their wheelchairs. In the film's most charming scene, Todd places calls to the front desk for the seniors, then runs to an extension and pretends to be a dead relative, reassuring them from heaven.

Oddly, the behavior that costs Todd his job permeates his workplace.  Greenebaum constantly offers up reminders on how the elderly return to a type of childhood and how assisted living promotes this.  Assertiveness training is done using a stuffed monkey prop - later a television commercial for baby diapers features the same toy. The chapel pastor livens up his sermons with games like hide and seek.  Dolls and stuffed animals and pets are everywhere.  The seniors who need help with such things as eating and putting on their shoes seem to exist in a state of reclaimed naivete.

At the core of "Assisted Living," though, is the emancipatory relationship between Todd and Mrs. Pearlman, a woman who staunchly maintains her own sphere.  No reason is given for why, one morning, Mrs. Pearlman insists on waiting for Todd, who is, of course, late for work.  Forced to mingle in the television room before his arrival, Mrs. Pearlman is subjected to Mr. Schulte's incessant channel surfing, something that doesn't seem to bother the other women.  She becomes oddly excited by a glimpse of a documentary on Australia, but when she asks the old man to switch back, he stubbornly insists on watching something else (kids again).  A ruckus ensues until a staffer removes Schulte to another TV and the others to bingo.  Todd arrives to find Mrs. Pearlman bewildered before a blank screen, unable to work the remote.  He finds the Discovery Channel just in time for the last minute of the show.

And so begins an obsession with returning to an estranged son in Australia, real or imagined, and the freeing of two souls Todd engineers through an act of rebellion. 'I just wanted you to know that I know I'm getting it - I'm not stupid,' Mrs. Pearlman tells Todd, throwing a tether while recognizing her advancing Alzheimer's.  And Maggie Riley, a former circus performer who suffered two strokes and a heart attack during the filming of this movie, is a revelation in this role.  The woman digs down and produces a full portrait without us being told much at all about her life.  Her wavering in and out of reality is heartbreaking and Bonsignore's compassionate reaction to her decline is lovely to watch.

Greenebaum treats his subjects with the greatest respect, almost love.  His opening montage of scenes from the home settles on one closeup of a woman under a dryer - he holds the shot and it's beautiful and poignant - a study of a great face and a life almost lived out.  Tight shots allow us to contemplate old hands holding a fork or a TV clicker.  During the course of the film, everyday scenes of the cafeteria at meal time or people moving about hallways are shown with fast motion and jump cuts as if to speed up that which is naturally slowing down.  Hal Hartley composer Hub Moore's guitar score is a pacifying accompaniment.


Robin's review coming soon!

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