Editor’s note: Kati With an I is opening at Maysles Cinema, as part of its Documentary in Bloom series, followed by a Q&A with Greene on April 8th and 9th. The film is showing with Peggy Awesh’s 2009 short, The Third Body, which considers intersections of religion and science in their contemplations of bodies and desires.
“I love the way that you’re the one I dream of,” says Kati Genthner. She’s reciting a poem she wrote for her boyfriend James, you’re looking at a front porch. Her voice is grainy, a telephone recording, sharing the story of her all-committed love. “The first time he heard it,” she reports, “he actually cried.”
It’s the last day of high school as Kati With an I begins, and Kati’s about to graduate. She’s also agreed to let her half-brother, the documentarian Robert Greene, and the cinematographer Sean Williams, follow her with a camera as she prepares not only to leave school, but also to leave Piedmont, Alabama. During the last months of her senior year, she’s been living with a friend, Bridgett. When her dad Brian lost his job, he and her mother Tomi moved back to North Carolina. “We all thought,” Kati explains, “The best thing for me was to stay in Alabama and finish off the last 82 days of school. And that’s how it all happened.”
For the few moments the camera spends in it, the girls’ bedroom appears both cramped and expansive, a Twilight poster and a ferret in a cage, a cluttered makeup table and a wooden tchotchke hutch. The fact that you barely see these details in the first scene — early morning, when shadows fill the room — suggests the film’s frequently impressionistic effect. A collection of closely observed details and tight mobile frames, the movie is part verité observation and part Kati’s diary, that is, her all-consuming concerns, her limited views.
This structure allows for you to see variously and unclearly, but also precisely and deeply, as Kati describes her experience and also performs it. So, as Kati and the couple-of-years younger Bridgett are parting ways, she receives a note from Bridgett, something like an appreciation of their friendship. And as Kati reads it out loud to James — he’s driving them to the mall — you witness a shift, away from the closeness of the girls in Bridgett’s room and to another sort of understanding, at least on Kati’s part. Despite their occasional disagreements, Kati reads out loud. “It’s become a great experience for me… You have made one of the biggest impacts on my life.” Her primary confidant now is James, 21 years old, McDonald’s employee, and son of a truck driver. He nods as Kati confesses, “It made me cry when I first read it,” and says, “I’m about to tear up myself.” She looks at him: “Seriously?”
Blessed with perspective and poise, Kati’s responses to the world around her repeatedly suggest both affection and disbelief, openness and a hope for more control. This sensibility is visible in footage from Kati’s childhood, her direct address at once fresh and self-aware. “None of the boys admit that they like me,” she says, “But I can tell.” Or again, “I think school’s cool, I think being in school is better than summer vacation.” Now that she’s older, Kati is no less self-possessed, even as pressures mount.
Like so many high school graduates, Kati’s feelings are mixed. While she’s glad to be getting out of the small Christian community in Piedmont (at graduation rehearsal, the pale-blue-gowned participants are reminded to choose Jesus Christ: “I tell you, it’s not an easy choice,” says a pastor, “because life is not easy, life is full of difficult, non- trivial choices”), she’s also apprehensive to leave the life she knows. Splashing in the pool with her girlfriends or watching James play videogames, she’s comfortable and confident. “I don’t know why I’m wearing these stupid pants,” he complains, as if for the camera. “Because you love me,” Kati smiles, “And you know I like those pants.”
After high school, when she moves back with her parents for the summer and then goes to college (Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte), Kati means to have James along. When her parents suggest he might not be ready to move with her, she insists otherwise. Dad worries that he’s working at McDonalds (“He wants to become a meteorologist,” Kati protests) while Tomi suggests there are, after all, a couple of McDonald’s where they live, and she knows one of the managers.
Kati puts the choice to James in terms she understands. They sit on a motel porch, her parents in a room behind them: the camera peers at them, the night wrapped around them. Percieving that James is reluctant to leave his mother (“She’s holding on to you with, like, a iron fist”), Kati asks, “What’s more important? Going and make something better of your life and actually being in a real city or living in Alabama, in Piedmont, where it’s okay to have sex with your mother?” He pauses and sighs and you get the feeling that she’s stuck.
But you also get the feeling that James — who looms so large in her thinking now — isn’t so crucial to Kati’s experience. Uneven and earnest, subtle and beguiling, Kati With an I reflects her experience without judging it, and suggests a context without overstating it.