Review by Sean Boelman
Gonzo documentaries are extremely difficult to pull off, but they can be incredibly compelling when done well. Well, Seeking Mavis Beacon is not just a gonzo documentary but also an experimental one, at that, and while it’s not perfect, it’s hard not to admire the filmmaker’s vision for this story.
In the film, director Jazmin Renée Jones and her friend Olivia McKayla Ross set out on a quest to pay homage to the ‘80s educational game Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. However, this soon evolves into a wild goose chase to find the Haitian-born cover model who dropped off the grid decades earlier. Although anyone can apply a bit of logic after the first act to figure out where the search is headed, it’s still an incredibly engaging journey.
The one thing that can be a bit off-putting about Seeking Mavis Beacon is that it feels, at times, like the filmmakers are trying to protect themselves with the camera. For example, Jones films a disagreement with the landlord of the studio she is working in. It’s one thing to take the gonzo approach of your investigation becoming the story, but it’s another to create extra obstacles for narrative tension that aren’t necessarily relevant to the issues at hand.
However, Jones has plenty to explore thematically, so we can forgive some of her indulgences. The documentary starts as an exploration of Blackness, as Jones explains how seeing representation like that in Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing influenced her life. However, it soon evolves into something more complex, addressing themes of feminism and digital rights, the latter of which has hardly ever been more relevant than it is today.
The critical aspect that holds Jones’s documentary together is her friendship with Ross. Frankly, the story they’re investigating is pretty obscure and doesn’t make much difference on its surface. Yet, Jones establishes this story's personal stakes for her — and her friend — which will keep viewers invested.
Seeking Mavis Beacon also does a better job of exploring the role that documentary ethics plays in gonzo filmmaking than many other films in the style. The entire back half of the movie, as they try to find their “missing” person, Jones and Ross begin to wonder whether this person even wants to be found — an obvious question to ask, but one that so few documentary filmmakers have engaged with in the past.
As far as the style goes, Jones clearly knows how to craft an engaging story. The technological aspect of the story plays a significant role in the film’s execution, as many parts show Jones and Ross’s computer screens as they explore new clues in their investigation. Jones also wisely avoids talking heads as much as possible, favoring discussions instead of people talking to the camera.
Seeking Mavis Beacon is an excellent investigative documentary exploring a story one might not have expected to be as fascinating as this. Although many might be drawn to watch this movie out of nostalgia, they will be surprised to see how deeply it explores some of its more complex elements.
Seeking Mavis Beacon screened at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, which ran January 18-28 in-person in Park City, UT and online from January 25-28.