Christian de Rezendes, the talented filmmaker whose Getting Out of Rhode Island was Film Threat’s choice as the Best Unseen Film of 2002, returned to his first foray into filmmaking with “Branches ’93,” a new version of his documentary on senior year at North Smithfield (Rhode Island) High School. The original production “Branches” was intended as a video yearbook for de Rezendes’ graduating class, but it grew into an epic endeavor–80 hours of 8mm video footage edited over seven months into a 192 feature–that won a Certificate of Merit at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1996. In coming back to the project, de Rezendes cut down the film into a new 148 minute version. This “Branches ’93” might be leaner than the first go-round, but it nonetheless seems like an excessively long film that could have used a lot more editing.
“Branches ’93” is difficult for the outsider to watch since very few of the people, either students or faculty, are identified by name and we rarely get a chance to know them in-depth. The alumni at North Smithfield (who saw the film at their tenth anniversary gathering in late 1993) might get a kick recognizing familiar faces in the mix, but everyone else coming to this film will require a great deal of patience in this kaleidoscope of nameless faces.
Which is not to say that “Branches ’93” is lacking interest. It provides a good-natured window into the world of high school in all of its goofy charm. Whether it is watching the less-than-balletic cheerleaders go through their exercises with more enthusiasm than talent, or listening to an irritated yearbook editor complain about the incompetence of the photographs submitted for publication, or enjoying a happy bit of razzing by students who point out their teacher’s curious habit of adding an extra “A” at the end of the word “wrong,” the film shows teenagers acting like teenagers. Compare this to any Hollywood teen offering, whether for big or small screen, and it is easy to see that too many adult filmmakers have totally forgotten what teen life is all about. The kids here are good kids, equal parts silly and intelligent, and they seem like a lot of fun to hang out with. (Apparently the school is either lacking a rough element or they did not want to show up on camera.)
If “Branches ’93” presents an honest glimpse into the high school experience, its intimacy is frayed by the massive running time. There are plenty of chunks of footage that could easily be lost, especially when the unwilling participants in the film look squarely into the lens and ask that the camera be turned off. Once or twice is amusing, but by the tenth request to stop filming the joke is beyond salvaging. And not everything that goes before the camera is worthwhile. Listening to the overeager members of the boys soccer team in a boastful proclamation of pending victory while heading to a school bus to take them to a match (which they lose) has an off-beat charm–their victory is confidence over talent, to be certain. But listening to the extended and painfully clumsy jam session by the jazz ensemble, in which everyone is trying to be funny but in which no one seems to have any clue what playing jazz is all about, is a bore. In trying to create a record of a year in the life of a school, “Branches ’93” tries to reach for too much. And what it pulls in is equal parts gold and brass. When it works, it is enchanting. When it doesn’t, it feels like an afternoon in detention.