[FFF 2020] FOR WALTER AND JOSIAH -- A Heartbreaking but Hopeful Documentary about an Important Issue
Review by Sean Boelman
Exploring universal issues in the context of a small-town community, Jamie Elias’s documentary For Walter and Josiah is a difficult film to stomach because of how heartbreaking its story is. Yet despite having some really powerful moments, it isn’t focused enough for it to move beyond being a conversation-starter.
The movie examines a community left in disarray after two Native American teenagers on a reservation commit suicide, as their high school basketball team sets out to play the season in their honor. As the title suggests, the film is first and foremost a tribute to these two young people who lived tragic lives, but Elias also uses their stories to bring attention to an issue that is too often left undiscussed.
Even though this is, on its surface, a story about two teenagers who took their own lives, it is also representative of the greater systemic problems facing American society. Why is it that suicide is considered news-worthy when it is a white teen in question but stories like this are often swept under the rug?
If nothing else, the movie succeeds in giving a voice to these people whose story needs to be heard. These families were understandably hit hard by their loss, but they intend to use their experiences in a way as to educate and provide hope to people in similar situations. Maybe if this story can be heard, fewer young lives will be lost.
The film’s biggest mistake is that it tries to do too much in such a short period of time. The movie arguably would have been more effective had it placed a greater emphasis on the families of the subjects rather than the basketball team trying to honor them. Because of this, the emotional exploration of the suicide crisis is undercut by a more conventional underdog arc.
Granted, this storyline does accent the film’s theme of finding hope in a time of darkness, but the interviews with Walter and Josiah’s families are just so moving that they could have anchored the story effectively on their own. The basketball portions too often feel like a distraction from the main emotional core of the movie.
Elias is clearly a very talented filmmaker, this being a quite impressive directorial debut. Her style is very understated, allowing the power of the material to take center stage. There is also some gorgeous cinematography on display, but in a way that is subdued and elegant, not flashy and distracting.
For Walter and Josiah is definitely an effective watch, but one would be remiss not to acknowledge that more could have been done with this material. Still, Elias manages to bring out the inherent emotion in the core of the movie regardless.
For Walter and Josiah is available virtually (geoblocked to Florida) for the entirety of the Florida Film Festival, which runs August 7-20 in Orlando, FL.