Want to knock a decade (or three) off your life? For 80 minutes at least, experiencing New Orleans through the lens of the Ross Brothers' camera in Tchoupitoulas, with the guidance and vitality of the film's three youthful leads, will do just that.
Theirs is a fly-on-the-wall documentary that chronicles 9-year-old William along with his slightly older brothers, Bryan and Kentrell (as well as their cute and well behaved little pitbull named Buttercup), as they set off one evening from their impoverished home in Algiers to cross the Mississippi into the French Quarter. Their evening of taking in the sights and sounds of the city of sin (while looking for pizza) becomes an all night odyssey as they miss the last ferry home.
Peaks behind the curtain of the myriad burlesque dancers, musicians and buskers (and one particularly chipper man shucking oysters for old ladies) of one of America's liveliest and seediest cities, and thought bubble voice-overs from young William act as loose chapter breaks between the encounters of people and places on the street in the parks, and along the river bank. The film plays like an ethereal hybrid of Frederick Wiseman and early David Gordon Green, blending elements of the familiar, while infusing the less picturesque areas of the city with a mystery and the force of energetic possibility.
Even if the 'missing of the ferry' might feel a tad contrived by the filmmakers (who certainly weren't going to spring for a cab ride home), it works as narrative. Cinema is lies that tell the truth anyway. Besides, it simply offers more time in town with the boys and their dog.
The film may have been shot on standard definition cameras, and is occasionally both murky and raw in its naturally lit, vérité presentation but the sound design here (by Lawerence Everson) invites you to listen in a way that makes the entire experience feel higher resolution than its cinematography suggests. A late-in-the-picture foray into an abandoned river-boat, a ghost ship of sorts, is presented significantly from its dark visuals, crunching glass and hushed whispers of the boys. When they come into the main dining hall, gloriously lit with a huge chandelier, William celebrates with a few of his Michael Jackson moves on the decaying dance floor. It is invigorating stuff.
All along the evening we get the goofy banter of the three boys, from the etymology of the word 'Hotdog' to William's thoughts on his girlfriend. But it is less what they are saying than how they are saying it. These are young boys on the verge of adulthood, but still innocent enough that their posturing and showmanship has honest character.
We see William playing the recorder (awkwardly) in his bedroom at one point, a discussion of woodwinds with a busker later on in the film and finally him miming the notes during a particularly wonderful bit of musicianship from a trio of street performers. At dawn the pleasant exhaustion of the boys, who now have been running or lounging around the green spaces and concrete alleyways of the city for the better part of 10 hours (or a lifetime), feels like a melancholy onset of adulthood, although shots of a frenzy of birds fluttering about in organized chaos on the waterfront might suggest otherwise.
Either way, when you are that age, these experiences leave a deep imprint; perhaps more, perhaps less if you have a two-man camera crew following you about. Tchoupitoulas offers a subtly visceral opportunity to re-discover that piece of yourself - fresh eyes in the viewing.
After a successful run on the documentary festival circuit, Tchoupitoulas opens in New York City today for a limited run.
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