by Del Harvey
Tales of a brave Ulysses, trying vainly to overcome the dysfunctional spirit within.
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Why Neal is a film about Neal Hecker, an outwardly normal looking male with a disarming smile and a peaceful demeanor who is a very good collage artist, a simple human with a near child-like comprehension of many things in this world, but who looks just as average as any other nearly-middle-aged adult. The film, by Chris Deleo, is a little over two years in Neal’s life. Among the interviews and ramblings are some telltale clues which eventually emerge as Chris confronts his Mother with several self-realizations about his past, and her own. These intersections are stuffed with retellings of earlier periods in his life, all of which are further complicated by unintroduced interviews with sister(s), ex-girlfriends, stepfather(s), and possibly his own father. We’re never completely certain of many of these individuals’ identity or relationship, but it really is not important, we eventually discover. What transpires is a sense of this young man’s true character, and it’s a surprising realization.
Filmmaker Deleo’s documentary of a semi-rational younger man’s labor to resolve his own identity, his relationship with a mother who abandoned him as a child, and with his own arrested development, ends up being not only something of a revelation, but also an extremely fascinating parallel to the larger cosmology of the dysfunctional family that is more and more the norm in contemporary social strata. We learn of Neal’s younger years and the time spent in institutions, of near suicides, of obsessive loves, and finally of his own self-awareness that much of his current existence was shaped by a hatred for his Mother. The scene where they sit down and discuss this openly is remarkable considering Neal is not the kind of guy most of us would probably talk to on a crowded bus, he has that slightly creepy quality. But he also has the gentleness of a 9 year old, and it is this peaceful glow which allows us entry into his perspective, which is often inappropriate, but always fascinating.
One of the most striking ironies in the film is learning that Neal has a job as a caretaker for a man nicknamed “Stoneman,” whose limbs are all but unusable, yet who is a full-grown adult with a mind that’s sharp as a tack. He is often “yelling” at Neal to get out and live his life normally. And Neal has learned long ago to pass himself off as a full grown, fully capable adult, in spite of his mental aberrations.
Deleo shot this film on Hi 8 video, and there are many sequences where it is painfully apparent. At the same time, it is the blown out quality derived from shooting direct to video which adds to the grainy, 70’s feel and look of the piece, at times. This, when married to the loose, informal, but informative narrative, make Why Neal a terrific documentary.
Currently, Why Neal is mostly being exhibited at film festivals. If you wish to see the film, contact Chris Deleo at Houdini1@optonline.net, or phone (516) 314-5319. He’s looking for distribution, and I most certainly hope he finds it. Why Neal is one of the best biographical documentaries I’ve seen in a very long time.
Del Harvey is a writer and screenwriting teacher living in Chicago.
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