Review by Sean Boelman
The use of reenactments in documentaries is historically inconsistent — typically they are used as a crutch to fill gaps in the narrative, but rarely, they can be used in a way as to challenge the notion of storytelling. Bo McGuire’s poetic documentary Socks on Fire falls into the latter category, providing a non-fiction viewing experience that is entirely thought-provoking.
In the film, McGuire reflects on his own family and past, exploring his own identity against the backdrop of a dispute over the estate of his beloved grandmother. At once a statement of love and respect for the deceased and an examination of hard-hitting societal issues, McGuire’s documentary manages to be searingly political while maintaining a feeling of total earnesty.
The film has two main storylines to it. One explores the filmmaker’s relationship with his grandmother and his experiences as an LGBTQ youth in the conservative South, and the other addresses the dynamic between his gay uncle and homophobic aunt. Though the latter of the two is arguably the more unique story, McGuire brings such a personal touch to his own tale that it is compelling nevertheless.
There is certainly a lot going on in the movie, but McGuire manages to connect all of the narrative threads in his film in a way that makes it feel completely cohesive. The portions about the queer experience and about grief come together to form a comprehensive portrait of what it means to grow up as an outsider.
McGuire tells his story in the form of staged reenactments, which is understandable, as this is a very personal subject, and it could have been difficult (or even unethical) to feature the subjects themselves. But an intriguing consequence of this narrative strategy is that it brings to question the subjectivity of experience in an interesting way.
These reenactments are highly stylized with an eye for aesthetics. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous in a way that one would not expect. The use of visual metaphors (including the eponymous one) is powerful as well. To supplement the reenactments, McGuire uses home videos from his childhood, giving the movie a much-needed feeling of authenticity.
Another thing about McGuire's narrative method is that it makes the audience feel as if they are a part of the story. The filmmaker’s opinions of the film’s subjects (particularly his aunt) are mixed, and so he presents them in a way that is ambiguous. Even though she has done some hateful things, she is a part of his family, and so he still loves her. This is likely going to be the single most relatable element of the movie.
Bo McGuire’s Socks on Fire is a challenging documentary, both in terms of storytelling and content. It’s a revealing watch, showing the potential that the medium of film has as both a means of self-expression and self-discovery.
Socks on Fire was set to debut at the cancelled 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.