By Greg Bellavia | December 27, 2004

Character. While often cited in screenwriting courses as the most ignored aspect in most stories, three dimensional characters help draw the audience into the story and provide emotional impact. It should be no surprise in a year dominated by strong documentaries that the subjects and documentarians themselves have proven to be the most engaging characters seen in theatres. From the approach of filmmakers Michael Moore (“Fahenheit 9/11”), Jonathan Caouette (“Tarnation”) and Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”) to the stories of everyday people like Anton Newcombe (“DiG”) and Joe Simpson (“Touching the Void”) the amount of diverse, intriguing story lines provided by real life has opened up the medium like never before. One more memorable real life character to add to this list is Neal Hecker and the documentary “Why Neal”.

“Why Neal” is a fascinating portrait of Neal in his everyday life: Living at home with his mother and her boyfriend, taking care of the mentally and physically handicapped Bob, interacting with his best friend Nora and writing obsessive letters to Jennifer, a girl from his past. However, despite the fact these events may sound mundane, they are complicated by the fact that Neal himself is mentally unstable and has spent time in a mental institution following a suicide attempt. Everything within the film from Neal’s mental hang-ups (he relieves himself in a shed so as to avoid his mother’s boyfriend in the house, saving his urine to be deposed of later) to his loyal and amusing best friend, to his understanding mother and his frustrated father play out as TV movie of the week clichés yet grow more complex before our very eyes. Neal’s eccentric behavior is off putting at first but becomes more palatable as we understand why he acts out for attention. His mother is seen as a bright force in his life, supportive of him no matter what, so it comes as a shock when we learn she abandoned him as a child; an event which has haunted him throughout his life. These are not stock characters but real people, many of them trying to make up for past mistakes.

Neal’s outlet for his creativity is in elaborate collages and the film itself is presented in such a matter. The only ongoing narrative thread is Neal’s yearning to move out of his mother’s home and out on his own but the events leading up to his departure are presented in a fractured chronology. He is seen with a beard and then without and back again, characters come in and out at random but it is in this jumbled presentation we can objectively see Neal for who he is: A three dimensional, caring man who happens to be mentally unbalanced. The film is shot straight on with a digital camera but still possesses many memorable moments such as Neal interacting with the foul mouthed Bob and later cleaning himself with only a piece of Aloe. This is documentary filmmaking at its most raw but also at its most engaging.

If there is any drawback to the proceedings it is that in the collage like narrative it is sometimes hard to discern the relationship of the people being interviewed to Neal. It takes a while to realize one interviewee is in fact Neal’s sister and another his ex-girlfriend. This minor gripe aside “Why Neal” is a consistently entertaining profile of one man trying to live life on his own terms. Late in the film a friend declares that life does not have a script and no better description could be given of this film, it is funny, moving and wonderful surprise.

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