Two new documentaries (sort of) about minorities (sort of).
Meet the Patels
One of the best of the year, Meet the Patels is hilarious. Shot since at least 2007, as the context of the film tells us, this documentary could almost be a fictional comedy (what are the odds – I’d say good, given the success of things like Fresh off the Boat – that it gets picked up and fictionalized?) in how fluidly it’s structured.
Ravi Patel is just looking for a girlfriend. His parents want him to find a wife. He’s a Patel. His mother and father use their vast Patel-network to find love for their son.
The strength of Meet the Patels, structure aside, is the family dynamic. Ravi and his sister Geeta, who’s barely seen on-camera, but is always heard behind it, are honest, funny, and dynamic in a way that a lot of brothers and sisters can relate to. Their parents are endearing, well-meaning, and just enough of a cultural mixture of Indian and American to make for some hilarious interactions and one-liners.
This is good old-fashioned comedy: boy wants girl, boy seeks girl, boy has mishaps along the way, boy learns about self. It’s obvious that a lot of footage was shot to find this structure, but it feels effortless in the end. I’m sure there are digital mountains of footage that went unused.
Another great thing about the doc is that you can really see Geeta’s technique improving over the years. It’s a joke at the beginning: the frames are shaky, the mic is often in the shot, and the images are out of focus. While that makes the film feel realistic and intimate, it would also be distracting for 90 minutes. As Meet the Patels progresses all of those things go away (along with SD, replaced with HD – it’s like a 7 year timeline of video progress). This not only gives us a sense of Geeta as a person (what she shoots, and how she shoots it), but makes the journey seem that much more arduous and ultimately rewarding (double the lesson: Ravi learns about himself, his family, and women; Geeta becomes a filmmaker).
Meet the Patels also does things that a lot of films strive for and ultimately fail at: being funny and entertaining, while simultaneously being heartfelt and meaningful. There are real moments in the film that seem despondent and true to life. Ravi’s interactions with his ex-girlfriend (in particular a phone call that they share); Ravi’s mother’s anger during a car ride; Ravi’s father’s several words of wisdom. It’s a result not only of great subject matter, but careful editing after what I’d guess was the opposite type of shooting – shoot it all, regardless of what it is.
What We Do in the Shadows
Funny but in a different way than Meet the Patels, What We Do in the Shadows tracks a few vampires living in 2015 and the trials and tribulations that they face. It’s laugh-out-loud and silly, but like Meet the Patels also has moments of poignancy (drawn mostly from one vampire’s undying love for the woman of his dreams – mortal, and now quite elderly).
There are plenty of cinematic jokes in Shadows. There’s a Nosferatu knockoff, and send-ups of The Lost Boys and Blade, both of which are really funny.
It’s interesting that the vampire schtick doesn’t get tired. That’s in part due to the aforementioned poignancy, but also thanks to a pack of werewolves (read: frat boys) who mix things up, and the performance of Jermaine Clement, who is so deadpan and ludicrously serious in the film that anything he says lands.
What We Do in the Shadows doesn’t really break new ground. It’s Christopher Guest 2.0. And unlike Meet the Patels there’s nothing too impressive about its structure or the characters – they all are very clearly archetypes and stereotypes and they’re unabashedly played as such. But, when you’re funny, you’re funny. And this mockumentary can get away with simplistic problems (in the scheme of things – it’s really mostly about a roommate situation), and absurd, mythical solutions, as long as the laughs keep coming.