Review by Sean Boelman
Hoping to cash in on the nostalgia that many people hold for the golden days of commercialism, the new documentary Jasper Mall uses the eponymous shopping center as a symbol for the greater issues faced by the American economy. Using a simple but effective fly-on-the-wall approach, filmmakers Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb have delivered a portrait of commercialism that is both timely and compelling.
The movie explores a year in the life of the Jasper Mall in Jasper, Alabama as the store owners try to make a living and the mall manager desperately tries to keep the doors open. For anyone who grew up going to their local mall, this story is undoubtedly going to strike an emotional chord as they reminisce about the days in which these behemoths were the dominant form of commercialism.
On the surface, it seems like the death of the mall is a topic that isn’t particularly important, but there is more to this story than online shopping pushing brick-and-mortar retailers out of business. The film focuses heavily on the human element of these events — the people who depend on the mall for income and are struggling to stay afloat.
With this, the movie is able to be even more resonant than one would expect. The film works quite well when it shows the plight of these small business owners, but it is even more effective when it is telling the tragic story of the mall manager. His story, even more so than all the others, stands out as particularly heartbreaking against the backdrop of rural America in a failing economy.
The movie jumps between the shop owners and the manager, but Thomason and Whitcomb wisely choose to use the latter as the primary focus of the film. As someone who is personally connected to the story yet also a relative outsider on the economic impact of the mall’s shuttering, he serves as the perfect representative for the audience to understand the filmmaker’s message.
Thomason and Whitcomb do an excellent job of making sure that all of the different parts of the movie come together. From a young customer that frequents the mall to an elderly florist on the verge of retirement, each person has their own story to tell, and the filmmakers curate them in a way as to allow a balanced look at this community.
On a technical level, the film is quite strong. Although Thomason and Whitcomb shoot the movie in a relatively standard fly-on-the-wall style, they do it in a way that is thought-provoking and aesthetically-appealing. Arguably the most impressive thing about the film’s execution is how the filmmakers create such a wide feeling of emptiness and desolation that sets the tone of the movie.
Making a profound social statement with a specific story, Jasper Mall is a captivating and necessary documentary. While some may dismiss this film because of its seemingly low-key subject, this is in reality a not-so-secret discussion of class in America.
Jasper Mall debuted at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival which runs January 23-30 in Park City, UT.