Film Review: Socks on Fire ★★★

It’s easy to see why queer poet and filmmaker Bo McGuire’s feature debut Socks On Fire took home Tribeca’s jury award for Best Documentary Feature this week. Due to world premiere at the postponed festival, the film is at once a lyrical, inventively told, deeply personal portrait of McGuire’s Southern family, a hymn to the women who shaped him (“when these women talk at once it is my favourite chorus”), and an examination of the squabbles over his late grandmothers estate. A slow burn, it gradually expands to resonate with universal human experience, and pushes the boundaries of documentary as a storytelling form, merging documented ‘reality’, subjective recollection and innovative recreations.

John Washington in Socks on Fire. Directed by Bo McGuire. Image courtesy of Blanton Boles.

A striking figure of a hipster Southern dandy, McGuire, whose filmmaker biography states that he belongs to the First Church of Dolly Parton (having previously only had eyes for Britney and Judy, as we learn in the film), returns from his life in New York City to his hometown of Hokes Bluff, Alabama to explore the idea of inheritance, both the material and the spiritual, we receive from our families. At the heart of the film is the symbolism of his grandmother’s home, which for him “holds the stories we’re entitled to inherit”.

As with many families, particularly when there is no legal will, the death of the matriarch has led to disagreements and apparently uncharacteristic behaviour. McGuire is particularly confused and intrigued by how his once favourite aunt Sharon has behaved towards her gay, drag queen brother, Bo’s uncle John. The ugliness of aunt Sharon’s disappointing and at times reprehensible actions in going against her mother’s spoken wishes for her home to be left for uncle John to live in, are contrasted by the film’s poetic quality, aided by Matt Clegg’s cinematography and McGuire’s narration and observations: “you’ve got to go back and sift through the ashes, you’ve got to breathe them back to life.”

Bo McGuire, director of Socks on Fire. Photo credit: Carl Conway McGuire.

Socks On Fire partly unfolds like a true crime investigation, with scrutiny of old photographs, family videos of happy Christmases together and candid talking head interviews with his mother, godmother, uncle John, a former school teacher, and others; which, along with the title, led me to expect something more incendiary might be uncovered. Alongside these more conventional elements are imaginative reactions offering a window to the past. Actor Odessa Young plays aunt Sharon in her high school years, while the older aunt Sharon is played, in drag, by Chuck Duck. The latter portrayal brilliantly skewers the woman’s bigotry towards her brother’s sexuality and self-expression. In one scene, we see Duck, as aunt Sharon, horrified to discover her brother’s car outside a gay bar; according to one family member she was “so distraught and embarrassed that a family member was gay”. These sequences don’t feel like typical documentary recreations, although they have heightened quality, as our memories often do, they don’t feel any less authentic than the old VHS footage included in the film. An interesting layer is added with the convergence of the actors and some of the real life people they portray.

McGuire remains a key figure throughout the narrative, usually perfectly poised, drawing on a Virginia Slim. There are some beautifully queer moments as he reminisces about his childhood, like receiving the Barbie he’d asked for one Christmas, and in a home video we see him as a young boy with his love for country singer Reba McEntire clear, her first name shaved into the back of his hair. He also recalls his early fasciation with the mysterious “forest”, the woods, behind his nanny’s home, which he returns to as adult.

Bo McGuire, Susan McGuire and John Washington in Socks on Fire. Directed by Bo McGuire.
Image courtesy of Blanton Boles.

Don’t expect anything too revelatory in the narrative; these characters and situations aren’t extraordinary, but they are beautifully captured and likely to be recognisable to many of us on some level in our own family’s dynamics, and you might find yourself dwelling on your own mother, or aunt Sharon, or uncle John. As Bo talks to his mother, an interesting point, which the film conveys well in its approach, is introduced about perspective, the way in which siblings can grow up in the same household yet experience their family and their upbringing so differently. Long after the end credits rolled one particular celebratory, cathartic moment was seared into my mind, that of three figures dancing freely in the grass; Bo, his mother and his baton twirling uncle John resplendent in drag.

By James Kleinmann

Socks On Fire was due to have its world premiere at last month’s postponed Tribeca Film Festival and won the jury award for Best Documentary Feature.

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