This debut mock documentary by Chris Hansen is a hysterical and insightful view of cults and the family.
The Proper Care and Feeding of an American MessiahDirector: Chris Hansen
Cast: Ellen Dolan, Joseph Frost. Tony Hale, Chris Hansen and Dustin Olson
Distributor: Mill Creek International
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 2007
US DVD Release Date: 2007-09-25
Hansen obviously has a feel for mock documentaries. His debut feature The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah succeeds because he respects the limitations of the form without losing the story arc or the consistency of the characters. He doesn’t exploit the acknowledged presence of the camera for handy explanations or to compensate for poor writing. The film remains taut and funny throughout.
Produced on a low budget and mostly with the assistance of his students at Baylor University, The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah is a portrait of Brian B. (Dustin Olson), a balding bespectacled self proclaimed messiah. Brain B., whose surname is never revealed, is at pains to point out he doesn’t think he is the messiah but a messiah, in fact the “regional messiah for people within 100 mile radius” of his home town, which just happens to be Waco, Texas.
Another reason the film works so well is Olson’s portrayal of Brian B. The ‘making of’ documentary included in the bonus section shows the transformation he underwent. Apart from agreeing to have his hair removed Olson occupied the role of this nervy, badly dressed and short-tempered suburbanite. The performance is so convincing you would think he had written the part or it had been written with him in mind.
Brian B. is not only modest about the extent of his messiahship but also in the range of his powers. For the greater part of the film he is oblivious to what his special purpose is because it hasn’t been revealed to him. However, this fact doesn’t daunt him. He’s certain that he has a purpose because after all he is a messiah. It will only be a matter of time before it is revealed to him.
Without clear divine guidance Brian B. fulfills his spiritual role as he sees fit at 3pm, the so-called “messiah time”. During this time he either dresses up as Jesus or dispenses largely unwanted advice to people in his neighborhood. Much of this advice relates to gastric problems, which Brian himself suffers from and which he feels is God’s way of speaking to him. He claims, “Each heave is one more person in pain in my stomach.” Hence the prominence of antacid figures in his rituals. Other times he spends messiah time playing with his collection of Jesus figurines which include a macaroni Jesus, a FIMO Jesus and leper and a posable Jesus he wrestles against a posable Moses.
He might be at a loss about his purpose, but Brian B. is no doubt that he is a chosen one. After some cajoling from the interviewer (Hansen), Brian reveals that he was first made aware of his role when he was kidnapped by federal agents and taken to a warehouse where they informed him he was a messiah and that they expected him to perform miracles for which they would take credit. Brian B. is equally certain of his status because he is a fourth generation messiah though neither his father, grandfather nor great grandfather knew of their special calling. Brian B. feels blessed to have been enlightened, though he would feel even better once he knew what he had to do.
Other clues to Brian B.’s role are the miracles he claims to have performed. When asked if they compare to the story of the loaves and the fishes he rebukes the interviewer by saying that he isn’t David Copperfield. One miracle is the miracle of the fruit where Brain B. ‘miraculously’ catches plums thrown at him, though usually he misses. According to Brian B. the miracle of the fruit is that the fruit happens to feed him when he’s hungry.
The other miracle is the shoe miracle, which involved a pair of shoes he gave to Goodwill (an American charity store). A couple of days later he found the shoes in his own bin. Without explaining why he goes through his own trash, Brian B. said he gave the shoes back to Goodwill. Then his brother Aaron (Joseph Frost) brought the shoes home having recognized them as his brother’s by the odor.
For some reason, this seemingly necessary detail is only revealed in a deleted scene. Furthermore, this scene not only fills out the story; it gives us another of the few scenes of Aaron alone in his room on his inflatable furniture. Given that he is Brian B.’s most loyal follower and the brunt of his anger, it seems important to flesh him out. It is not said why it wasn’t included in the final cut. Maybe a re-release in a few years will see it included.
Miriam (Ellen Dolan) is the pair’s long-suffering somewhat mousy sister and Brian’s only other follower. She also acts as the messiah’s conscience and voice of reason. When Brian B. tells her that like Jesus he needs a posse, Miriam corrects him saying the word is apostle. Afterwards, Brian corrects her saying the word is in fact ‘a-posse-tles’. She generally accepts these moments with the sort of saintly grace Brian is lacking. As the film progresses it becomes clear that her feelings toward her brother are a little more ambivalent.
Like Olson, Dolan and Frost deliver strong performances, which compliment Olson. It is not only that Miriam’s resigned acceptance of Brian B.’s delusions counter-balance his manic proclamations and Aaron’s naïve acceptance. The three work off each other. They react to the unspoken but known cues of real siblings, thus making us believe in their shared history. Miriam’s patience, Aaron’s devotion and Brian delusion come from the same background. Yet Hansen never explains the reasons too blatantly. He could’ve easily written in interviews with other family members or family friends. Instead he has trusted the actors and characters to develop their relationship between each other. Despite being unconventional, this fictive family shares the bonds of a real one.
At a deeper level, the characters touch on the dual nature of family as protective and insular. On one side the family comes across like a cult. Apart from by Brian’s belief that he is a messiah, they are secretive about their parents. They protect the members, guard secrets and are hostile to too much outside intrusion. Simultaneously, they care for each other. Such love is what keeps Miriam going to work to support her brother.
Admittedly I wondered where this could go. Brian antics and his misguided view of the world are funny but it seems hard to decide whether it will sustain a story. The direction the film takes is as effective as it is simple. Brian B. takes his message to the world, even if he isn’t entirely sure what it is.
To reach more people he decides to book a civic hall for which he must raise money. This leads to various schemes such as baptisms for $1.18 and going door-to-door blessings for payment. Clearly, Hansen is lampooning the commercialization of religion but it is Olson’s underdog approach that makes these scenes work. Brian B. has no luck with the baptism but one neighbor (Tony Hale) accepts the offer of a blessing, which Brian assures him, will do whatever he wants.
The neighbor asks Brian B. to remove some unwanted guests. These guests are figments of the neighbor’s imagination, which he serves lemonade with salt to, as well as to Brian, Aaron and Miriam. The scene though blatantly strange fits well into the movie. Hale’s performance, which he wrote some of the lines for, finds the right balance between the ordinary and frightening. He makes Brian appear quite ordinary. Equally Olson and Frost reveal an innocence in the characters that is revealed when confronted with madness far beyond their own. It all comes together when Miriam reappears having gone to the bathroom and is mistaken by the neighbor for the only imaginary guest that he wants to stay.
Failing to sell any other blessings or baptize anyone, Brain B.’s quest becomes increasingly frustrated. Neither his brother nor his Jesus figurines can console him. His failure starts to stress the family and eventually drives away Miriam, though they don’t notice her absence for a few days. Eventually the brothers realize that they can’t get by without her. They are even more determined to find her when Brian B.’s wife, Cecelia, reveals that Miriam has been hiding away money in her closet.
At this point we encounter a major problem with this movie. Cecelia appears at the beginning of the film to undermine Brian B.’s delusions. From this point she largely disappears from the movie until she’s needed to reveal where Miriam could’ve gone. It’s a shame that an otherwise tightly written script which had the right balance of characters lapses so glaringly here. Hansen probably had bigger plans for his character. Again the extras are necessary for revealing some of these. In one cut scene we see that this messiah has a son. In the final cut Brian B. says he is a father but we only see his child in the extra material. If so much had been cut already, why couldn’t Hansen cut this reference, not to mention Cecelia, from the film?
Brian eventually finds his sister. The bonds of this family prove too strong and Miriam agrees to come home and help Brian with his rally at the civic center. At this point the film’s many threads, both structural and thematic mostly come together. That the hall is empty is of course expected. When he’s accidentally shot by Aaron we begin to wonder how insane Brian could be because only a cynical and conniving mind would plan their own shooting. But only a madman would carry it out. Whatever Brain planned it does not come together as he hoped.
The setting of The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah make the religious themes of the film somewhat obvious. However, I think the film goes much deeper than that. It is much more about fantasy and how our imagination can define and protect us. Obviously Brain B. is an extreme case but his delusions are not pursued with the psychosis associated with historical cult leaders. It seems that he believes he is a messiah more for the hell of it. He’s not cynically proclaiming this for power and glory. Being a messiah is simply a way for him to get through the day.
That the film is a mock documentary reinforces this theme. A mock documentary is fiction that pretends to be real while knowing it is fiction. Both the film and the main character profess a self-conscious illusion. The truly delusional would not need to seek assurance as Brian B. does. They would merely tell everyone. Brain B.’s uncertainty and half-hearted efforts suggest that he is realizes this is not entirely true but he’s going along with it anyway. The mock documentary is perfect for this sort of character because we are not expected to trust him so utterly. We are sharing in the fun of it.
While there is talk that independent cinema has lost its vitality, Hansen shows that funny and intelligent films can be made without the assistance of big studios. Though it has some glitches, the film has all the ingredients of a great film. With memorable lines, strong characters and an unbelievable story this will no doubt find a cult following.