Title: Janeane From Des Moines
Director: Grace Lee
Starring: Jane Edith Wilson, Michael Oosterom with cameos by Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann
A quirky sociopolitical mockumentary experiment that plops down its title character as a sort of straightfaced, deep cultural embed amidst all the jockeying leading up to this election cycle’s Iowa Republican Presidential Caucus, “Janeane From Des Moines” is a movie of both hits and misses, but one that certainly never gets boring. If it could benefit from a more focused sense of purpose, director Grace Lee’s film also pulls off some undeniable coups, placing its fictional true believer in close proximity to all of the leading GOP contenders and by extension providing a snapshot of the reductive nature of national campaigning.
The movie centers around Janeane Wilson (Jane Edith Wilson), a conservative housewife who works as a home health aide and keeps busy with gardening, her church’s Bible study group, and partisan political canvassing. With her college-age daughter growing up and showing few signs of returning home for the holidays, and her husband (Michael Oosterom) becoming more and more distant in the wake of losing his trucking job, Janeane throws herself into the Tea Party movement, convinced that gay marriage (“I don’t understand when it came to be that gay people own all the rainbows”), “Obamacare” and Planned Parenthood are all destroying the country she loves. Traversing Iowa, she attends all sorts of rallies, speeches and events for Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney, asking them questions about their stances on issues and trying to figure out who best represents her values.
The film’s cinéma vérité material sometimes awkwardly abuts staged drama, and the personal tragedies Lee and Wilson (a co-writer) heap on Janeane feel over-stacked by maybe just one misfortune. There is certainly some dryly comedic gold found in the mining of these seams (fretting over dwindling money, Janeane attends a seminar of financial advisor Dave Ramsey, who preaches learning how to handle money “in a way that honors Christ”), but a twist involving Janeane’s husband lacks the necessary depth of a more nuanced set-up.
“Borat” this is not, in other words — at times to its detriment, since Wilson displays a real comfort with improvisational interacting with real people. Lee’s insistence on a fuzzy emotional throughline also undercuts the film’s satirical punching power against some of the uninformed hypocrisy that helps animate in this case partisan cultural conservatives. Ergo, “Janeane From Des Moines” connects fitfully, almost like a political version of “The Office” in which not everyone is in on the joke — as a sort of curated glimpse behind the utterly bizarre photo-op stagings of candidate appearances at ice cream parlors and the like.
The twin jewels of “Janeane” are its capturing of candidates unawares and Wilson’s finely calibrated performance, which is in its own strange way complementary to Meryl Streep’s turn in “Hope Springs.” They exist in markedly different stories, obviously, but both performances are similarly predicated upon an accumulated weight of heartache, frustration and regret finally reaching its tipping point. That happens most electrically when Janeane tearfully reconnects with Romney on the eve of the Iowa Caucus (an encounter that received national news coverage), but the film’s true, remarkable pièce de résistance is a coffeeshop sit-down with Bachmann and Iowa Congressman Steve King in which the former spins a personal question about getting kicked off health care rolls into a digressive monologue concluding with statement about what gas prices were when President Obama took office. It’s proof that retail presidential politics can be every bit as full of thick-headed, off-topic speechifying as air-game national message massage. Until there is sustained push-back against this, we get what we deserve, I suppose.
NOTE: For more information, visit www.JaneaneMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon