Why is this documentary ideal for denture wearers? Because, Judge Bryan Byun tells us, it offers very little for viewers to sink their teeth into. (Honestly, we tried to talk him out of that joke.)
"This is life and this is joy: an hour of embracing and then to die."—Nana
Nine Good Teeth, a documentary by New York filmmaker Alex Halpern, paints an intimate, often touching, but ultimately uneven portrait of Halpern's Italian-American grandmother, Mary Mirabito Livornese Cavaliere ("Nana"), and the family that surrounds her. As a girl, Mary encountered a gypsy woman who told her that she would live to be 96. As her 96th birthday approaches, Halpern decides to preserve Mary and her colorful past on film, just in case the prediction proves correct. As we discover over the film's 80 minutes of family anecdotes, homespun wisdom, family quarrels, and buried secrets, Mary is an outspoken, courageous woman, and far tougher than any gypsy prophecy.
Mary isn't the kind of luminary that normally gets the documentary treatment; her modest brushes with fame include making coffee for Jack Kerouac, who briefly dated her daughter Maria (and immortalized Mary's coffee in one of his novels), and being honored at the United Nations by having her hand imprinted in the center of the World Mandala Monument (why she was chosen isn't made entirely clear, however). But her story is a colorful one, filled with rocky romantic and family relationships, lost loves, even insanity and murder. If you're the kind of person who listens with rapt attention to gossip about family squabbles and scandals, you'll be riveted by stories like that of Aunt Gladys, who blames Mary for stealing her adolescence and refuses to talk to her. Or the contentious love-hate relationship between Mary and her daughter, who's grateful to have had her mother around for so long, even as she reveals long-simmering resentments over Mary's inattentive parenting and favoring her son over her other children.
While Mary herself, and especially her family members, are lively, engaging figures, the film does a better job of celebrating them than telling a coherent story. There's a curiously disjointed quality to the narrative, which jumps back and forth through Mary's life and doesn't always bother to bring the viewer up to speed on when (or to whom) things are happening. Some intriguing stories are mentioned only to be dropped—like the mysterious Harriet, "the girl who went insane," who is never spoken of beyond that tantalizing description. Or the "Carmelo story," apparently regarding a young suitor of Mary's mother who was murdered, we are led to believe, by Mary's father. These snippets seem to have been included merely to spice up the narrative, since Halpern never delves into them, and the overall effect is disappointing. Halpern approaches his subject with an irreverent, anything-goes attitude, but aside from cheekily kidding Nana about preserving body parts of departed loved ones, he keeps the documentary on the safe road, largely avoiding topics that might offend his family.
That's partly what makes Nine Good Teeth, as fascinating as it often is, less of a documentary and more of a home movie with great production values. It rarely strays from its feel-good, remember-when tone, even when touching upon darker issues like infidelity and death. "The troubles deep in the pot are known only by the spoon," goes one of Mary's "Nanaisms," and Halpern rarely lifts up that spoon before settling it back into the warmly nostalgic sauce. Halpern also seems a trifle too close to his story, unable to pull back enough to avoid such mistakes as assuming too much familiarity on the part of the viewer (we seem to be expected to know who everyone is after the briefest of introductions). Our families, usually, are far more interesting to ourselves than to strangers, but Halpern relates his family story as if we should all be as naturally fascinated by Nana as he is.
Nine Good Teeth is presented in a solid full-frame transfer; the film is drawn from a number of sources, including vintage stock footage, still photos, old video interviews, home movies, and newly shot footage, so image quality varies widely, but overall the print is excellent and provides a pleasing, easy-to-watch picture. Audio, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, is perfectly adequate for the job, offering a rich, full score and clear dialogue.
Special features are not bad, with several minutes of deleted scenes (the first, involving Maria talking to Halpern while driving, is the best—and most jarring), a brief video selection of official Nanaisms (Mary's favorite sayings, presented in animated text with music), the film's theatrical trailer (which presents the film as being far more dramatic than it actually is), cast and crew biographies, and a number of trailers for other Docurama releases. The one really awful feature is the audio commentary featuring Halpern, Maria, editor Angelo Corrao, and composer Teese Gohl. As a commentary, it's not bad—at least, for the few minutes I was able to listen to it—but it's horribly botched, with the feature audio mixed so high that the commentary speakers sound like they're shouting over the din. The resulting cacophony is so harsh that I was forced to switch it off.
There's a great deal to like about Nine Good Teeth; it's an engaging portrait of a classic immigrant family, and its 80 minutes go by quickly. But if you're looking for insightful, reflective fare that presents an unvarnished, probing document of a family history, you'd be better off with documentaries like My Architect or Capturing the Friedmans. Nine Good Teeth is pleasant enough, but lacks bite.
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