ALL UNHAPPY FAMILIES may be different, but that doesn’t mean they’re all worthy of being the subject of feature-length documentaries. Too frequently, films that shine a light on private dramas by splicing together home movies can end up as exercises in solipsism.
It takes tenacity and talent to effectively communicate family dynamics to viewers who haven’t spent decades immersed in them, and to connect those dynamics to broader truths. But that’s what Portland-based filmmaker Reed Harkness does in Sam Now, a film he’s been making, in one form or another, for the last twenty-five years.
As boys in Seattle, Reed and his half-brother Sam made backyard home movies, including a series starring Sam as a masked superhero called the Blue Panther. Despite having different mothers, Reed and Sam were extremely close, and when Sam’s mother, Jois, abandons her family without explanation, they eventually embark on the Blue Panther’s quest to discover her whereabouts and attempt to reconnect. This takes the pair on a road trip to California, where it’s only a minor spoiler to reveal that they do track her down.
A less ambitious project would end with the unlikely reunion between Sam and Jois, but Sam Now chronicles the uneasy fallout and unresolved traumas that lurk around the edges. It also provides a Boyhood-esque portrait of Sam’s maturation between the ages of 11 and 36.
Initially, the idea of making a feature film out of Sam’s story was, at most, in the back of Reed’s mind. His primary rationale was, he says, to “use this tool of moviemaking to help Sam and unlock some doors. Mostly I was just caring about my family and my brother and trying to create action where there was inaction.” Throughout the film, Reed expresses frustration that Jois’ family never seems to confront or process the emotions stirred up by her disappearance.
Eventually, however, it became clearer that someday strangers might end up watching this intimate saga. “We got some funding at one point through ITVS Open Call, which meant that it might be on public television. I could tell from that [application] process that the film had an appeal to a larger audience.”
In one of the movie’s bravest and most intimate scenes, Reed confronts his and Sam’s father and other family members about their seeming reticence to recognize the effect that Jois’ absence has had on Sam. “I think they appreciate that I’ve placed myself in the movie,” says Reed. “It’s a very vulnerable scene. It’s crazy all these different emotional places that different extended family members have gone to throughout this experience. If things don’t get metabolized, they have a ripple effect throughout the family.”
Despite the intimate nature of so much of the footage in Sam Now, and the fact that most of the family members depicted have seen the film, none of them insisted on changes or deletions. Reed says he did take care that a variety of perspectives were represented. “The Harkness family has been very supportive as they’ve watched it.” Jois, the enigma at the center of the story, has not. “She says that she’s not quite ready yet. When she does finally watch it, that will create an interesting opening for conversation.” If there are folks who feel they were depicted unfairly, Reed says he’s open to including supplemental videos on the film’s website, but ultimately “this was the story I needed to tell. It’s not necessarily your story, it’s a story I’m telling about an experience I had with my brother.”
Crafting that story meant sorting through hundreds of hours of footage, shot over a span of decades on almost every imaginable format, from VHS to MiniDV to literally miles of Super 8 film. Shifting between those formats enhances the feeling of skipping through time in Sam Now, but it was a laborious process, to say the least. One technical hurdle, Reed recalls, emerged when Adobe Premiere suddenly stopped supporting the codec for its DV files, which meant that “one of my editors, Jason Reid, had to convert everything from before a certain year to a new standard. It was a lot of work.”
The cascade of archival footage is given context and shape through Reed’s first-person narration, which was written with an assist from Portland novelist and screenwriter Jon Raymond (Denial). “He’s been a friend for a long time, and he came on as a consultant writer,” says Reed. “I really needed that sounding board. He pointed out if I was saying something that had already been said in the movie, and helped me whittle down long passages to a sentence.”
The film recently screened in Seattle to a full house, with the Harkness family in attendance. Prior to that, it played at Mountain Film in Telluride, Colorado. “We’ve had some amazing responses. It’s a film that opens people up in ways they don’t expect. I’ve had a lot of people crying on my shoulder.”
Looking ahead, Sam Now will hit the festival circuit in earnest this fall, and then will be broadcast nationally through PBS’s “Independent Lens” series in May 2023. Reed himself plans to follow up the film with, he jokes, “very tiny, short-term, easy projects.” One such project is about psychedelic therapy; another, called “House on Fire,” is a series that asks various individuals what one thing they would save if their home were to burn down. “I’m going to try to develop that idea more so that it’s about climate,” Reed explains. “If it’s true that we’re all going down with the ship, what do we bond over? What are the things that are most meaningful?”
Despite his enthusiasm for filmmaking, Reed has an understandable appreciation for the importance of making sure he’s a present parent for his four kids. “I’ve got to follow through,” he laughs, “and practice what I preach in the movie.”
- “Sam Now” will screen on Friday, August 5, at PAM CUT’s Whitsell Auditorium in the Portland Art Museum. Director Reed Harkness, editors Jason Reid and Darren Lund, co-producer Heather Hoxford, and members of the Harkness family will be in attendance for a post-film Q&A.