Some documentaries focus on a particular social issue, some aim to educate, others are character-based. But there’s the occasional nonfiction film that tries for a more abstract goal, to put you within a specific frame of mind or suffuse you with a certain feeling. With Tchoupitoulas, filmmaking brothers Bill and Turner Ross create a pitch-perfect mood piece. It’s a tone poem dedicated to the wonders of childhood, the difficulties of an impoverished home, and the great city of New Orleans.
The film takes place over the course of one night in the French Quarter. Preteen William Zanders, along with his two older brothers Bryan and Kentrell (and their dog, a pit bull named Buttercup), become stuck in the city when the last ferry to Algiers leaves without them. Taking advantage of the freedom, the trio wanders Bourbon Street, the namesake Tchoupitoulas Street, and more in search of adventure. Interspersed with their journey are scenes of various performers plying their trade in the late hours.
With William, the Ross brothers have stumbled upon a remarkable, indelible character. The kid is smart, funny, sensitive, and has an endless philosophical streak. His mind is always going a thousand miles an hour, and occasionally he’ll let us in on what’s going on. He delivers soliloquies that are as beautiful as they are strange and nonsensical. Equally endearing is the interplay between William and his brothers, who have no patience whatsoever for his introspection. They torment him, but it’s funny because it’s a sterling example of sibling interaction as it really happens, something that Hollywood can very rarely ever capture properly.
Tchoupitoulas is a great example of the documentary as reality fabricated from reality. Of course not all of this was shot on the same night. The boys’ odyssey, the musical performances, the scenes of their home life in Algiers, and William’s monologues were obviously filmed separately. But here, all these disparate elements inhabit the same space, conjuring a fully-realized vision of the world these boys live in, so that we can understand it.
I called the boys’ story and “odyssey” above, and that’s truly what it is. There’s even the crossing of a river factoring in heavily to the story! They find themselves in one strange situation after another, and the Rosses are behind them at every step of the way to capture it all. It culminates in a sequence aboard a mysterious abandoned yet lit ship on a dock, which will, if only for a brief moment, make you remember what it was like to explore the unknown as a child. It’s one of the most vivid, exciting, and rapturous film experiences this year.
There’s a bittersweet undercurrent to the proceedings. William is an innocent in a dirty, seedy environment, and soon he’ll become more like his hardened older brothers. This is an allegorical excursion through the end of childhood. But in the meantime, even this dirty world seems wondrous and magical. The movie often feels like a semi-lucid dream, or rather a shared dream space made up of the intertwining lives of all those who live in this city who struggle to regain what it’s lost.
Tchoupitoulas is a documentary unlike any other, the kind that expands and tears apart what you think the form is capable of. It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s mystical, it’s scary, and it is achingly, immediately true. Cocooned in a kaleidoscopic swirl of music and color is a picture of what it’s like to be a kid that’s so familiar that you’ll remember your own youthful escapades. This film is a cinematic approximation of those kind of memories, what young William will see in his mind when he recalls that one crazy night in the city, when he and his brothers missed the ferry. It’s “remember when?” at its most evocative.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Check out Dan’s website: Day of Docs