How many times does a documentary film really suck you in and hold you in its grasp from beginning to end? In my years as a film critic, I’m sad to report, not many. And for that reason, I always view docs with a certain amount of skepticism. Peyton Wilson has changed all that for me with her extremely interesting portrait of a traveling salesman, The Bronzer. Her subject is a 60-something gentleman from Coney Island named Stue Larkin, and his object of salesmanship is the bronze baby shoe.
According to Larkin, an immodest but definitely likeable character, bronzing baby shoes is an 80-year-old craft invented by and for Americans. He’s also quick to inform us that he’s the only person bronzing baby shoes in these parts, and for that reason, he’s renowned throughout the country. Now, that really is something!
Wilson’s documentary is unique in that it really moves, so that lag time is never evident. Moreover, the film manages to get inside Larkin’s head, so that we can see inside his soul. This type of activity can usually be found in outstanding narrative character studies, and the first filmmaker that comes to mind is Ingmar Bergman. In documentary films, such openness and depth of character is pretty rare, and we viewers are pretty much restricted to talking heads opining about one thing or another.
It’s clear to see that quintessential traveling salesman Stue Larkin loves what he does, and therefore, does it better than anyone. Not only does he tell us so, but we can see this in every fiber of his being and hear it in his voice, that wells over with pride, as he talks about his job.
But where Peyton Wilson shines is when she flushes out Larkin’s moment of pure humanity, when he admits that as much as he’d never, ever, ever, want to retire, some days he wishes he could just stay home and be with his wife. It’s that infinitesimal split-second when we see that dark pensiveness in Larkin’s otherwise twinkly eyes, that we see ourselves, and we cry.
Just for a moment, mind you, and then we continue along our hypnotic, 11-minute journey with the pride and joy of the baby shoe bronzing industry. Then, when The Bronzer ends, the magic sets in, and every one of us– even those from elsewhere–are proud to be an American.
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