I’ve never been to Southbridge, Massachusetts, and there is little in Rod Murphy’s annoying documentary “Greater Southbridge” to encourage a visit. This mishmash mix of “Roger and Me” and “King of Hearts” offers a vision of an economically depressed town supposedly overpopulated by lunatics and severe eccentrics. The resulting effort, however, is numbing.
Southbridge’s decline can be traced to the departure of the American Optical eyeglass manufacturing facility during the 1980s. With no equivalent job base brought in to replace it (and no clear reason why, after 20 years, this remains the case), the town is seemingly abandoned to a population of very-low-income people at various levels of insanity. The core of the film is one Jerry Sciesnewski, a loud and stuttering giant who survives on a meager welfare check and a rabid talent for acquiring and cashing in empty bottles and cans for their five cents deposit value. Poor Jerry is probably not a bad guy, but on camera he is booming, obnoxious, and a nightmare to the nerves. How or why he became the center of the film is a mystery, but the message the film sends is that Jerry is your typical Southbridge citizen. There are other local characters on screen, including a man known for his resemblance to Abe Lincoln and a Vietnam veteran given to inane political conspiracies, but none of them stand a chance when Jerry shambles on camera.
With its sloppy videography and choppy editing, “Greater Southbridge” barely qualifies as being a professional production. At times, the screen bears the day and time code at the lower corner, making it look more like a home movie than it should. Even worse than the low-grade production value is the film’s emotional and intellectual direction. Its menu of downtrodden, derelict and frequently lunatic people who supposedly make up the town eventually becomes depressing and even condescending. The people in this film have so little respect for themselves, and the filmmakers clearly have so little respect for them, that it is impossible for the audience to be engaged by their plight and lives. So why watch an 85 minute film packed solid with a bunch of losers?
The movie does touch on a strange racist strain running through the town, when a considerable Puerto Rican population began moving in after the town’s economic decline began and upset the whites with their new presence. It would seem that the Latino population offers some of the more intelligent and focused residents of Southbridge, especially a local police officer named Adrian Alvardo who politely assists Jerry in locating bottles and cans. This simmering racial conflict may have been the story that “Greater Southbridge” should have focused on, but too little attention is given to this genuinely dramatic story rather than the nonsense which wound up in the final cut.