Review by Sean Boelman
Some documentaries exist to promote some sort of change in society, while others serve more as a representation of something that is important at any given moment, with the intention of immortalizing their subject for all time. James Westby’s At the Video Store falls into the latter category, a wonderful ode to the days of physical media and an absolute delight for any cinephile.
The documentary takes a look at the rise and fall of the video store, which once had a place as a mainstay for the weekend entertainment of families across America but would eventually be replaced by more modern and convenient options. Anyone who remembers browsing the aisles of their local Blockbuster (or better yet, a mom-and-pop video store) will find themselves mourning with nostalgia for the death of what likely fostered their love of cinema.
At a mere seventy-two minutes, Westby’s film is slight and breezy. Ultimately, it’s little more than a crash course in the history of home media, with plenty of anecdotes about the glory days thrown in for good measure. It’s a movie made by nostalgic fans for nostalgic fans, and anyone who doesn’t fall within that target audience may be left wondering why the heck they should even care.
That said, Westby does a great job of making a case for why video stores were and are so important. Film has finally reached a point where it is accepted as a form of art as much as it is entertainment (despite a few detractors). Those remaining video stores (including some that are now defunct since the time of filming) hope to preserve these works of art for future generations.
The documentary focuses on some of the employees and owners of remaining stores as they try to survive in an increasingly competitive market. What results is a story that is surprisingly endearing about the American Dream gone awry. Of course, there are also interviews with celebrities and filmmakers who love video stores for their own reasons.
Westby brings an interesting style to the film that would normally come off as a bit amateurish, but it works given its retro feel. The interviews and B-roll frequently look like they were shot quickly and cheaply on video, which is a bit off-putting at first, yet grows on the viewer as the documentary continues.
The more questionable decision that Westby makes is in accompanying the film with a country music soundtrack that doesn’t quite fit. It’s cheesy and tongue-in-cheek, but often undermines the emotional impact in some of the more powerful scenes with something quirky and disingenuous.
It’s rather ironic that the pandemic has caused the southeast premiere At the Video Store to be reduced to a mostly virtual endeavor. Still, filmmaker James Westby makes an interesting case here about the importance of physical media, a debate that continues to divide the cinephile community.
At the Video Store screens at the Enzian Theater as part of the Florida Film Festival on August 18 at 9:30pm. It is also available virtually (geoblocked to Florida) for the entirety of the festival, which runs August 7-20 in Orlando, FL.