Best Sister

Published January 13, 2006, issue of January 13, 2006.
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The charms of Ira Wohl’s family documentary, “Best Sister,” sneak up on you in the manner of a good deli sandwich, which may sound weird but for the fact that the film devotes key scenes to the pursuit of fine cured meats and other (deceptively important) banalities.

The film is the final in a trilogy that focuses on Fran Reiss of Jewel Avenue — the director’s cousin and sometime-spiritual beacon — this time as she shuffles around her house and her Queens neighborhood. What’s an ostensibly straightforward week-in-the-life story, though, unexpectedly turns into a mediation on family and mortality.

In his two previous movies (the first, “Best Boy,” won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1980) Wohl showed Fran as the maternal figure, nurturing her mentally handicapped brother, Philly. Seven years since the second installment in 1997, we find Fran an octogenarian who’s turned her doting instincts inward. The transition from caregiver to cared-for is jarring. Sitting on a recliner in her bedroom, she frets about the neatness of her apartment, while in Queens restaurants she ponders at length what kind of kugel or sandwich she should buy, leading a life at once structured and dispiritingly empty. If some of this feels uncomfortable — the cinematic equivalent of enforced childhood visits to old-age homes — it’s also courageous. Wohl lets the camera linger on such things as a swollen foot or a box of pill bottles, almost daring us to stay with him.

Fran’s moody daughter and nebbishy college-age grandson are also around, sort of, having recently moved in for reasons that are unclear. Fran lives with them in a kind of parallel existence, barely intersecting with, but still oddly conscious of, her offspring. She worries about her grandson dating non-Jewish women and about preserving harmony with a daughter who doesn’t seem especially interested in it. She’s self-pitying and resolute, with a firm sense of drive but an absence of purpose. She is no longer capable of taking care of Philly; when her brother makes a short appearance late in the film, Fran snaps back into nurturing mode, which only highlights her descent further.

As the family gathers for what Fran morbidly wonders may be her final Passover, shades of holiday movies past and “The Corrections” (minus the Lithuanian investor scams) come peeking through. But Wohl’s interested neither in dysfunction nor in redemption, and the Seder that ensues is more touching as a result. In this moment and others, the film uses the ordinary to lull you in, and then turns around and socks you in the gut. When Fran tells Wohl how she prays before she goes to bed that will she dream of her late husband, the sudden burst of feeling is devastating. Wohl has created a family ode that’s equally heartwarming and heartbreaking, and made it look effortless.


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