Chris Hansen’s The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah (official website) is a mock documentary that follows Brian (Dustin Olson), a balding thirtysomething who believes that he is a messiah. Not the messiah, Brian persistently reminds the unseen documentary filmmaker (played by the director), but a regionally-selected messiah for a “100-mile radius,” Brian estimates. Brian’s delusions of grandeur are supported by his younger brother, Aaron, who admires his older brother, and his sister, Miriam, who recognizes Brian’s problems but seeks to prevent him from harming himself. The film is structured around a brief interlude in Brian’s “career” as he arranges to announce himself and his “higher purpose” to the public at his town’s civic center.
The mockumentary follows Brian first as he explains why he’s a messiah and later as he seeks to raise money to rent the civic center and to pay for t-shirts with a humorously garbled message designed to promote his appearance. Brian’s attempts to raise money include a baptism service that he sets up at a nearby swimming hole/beach, with Brian debating with his younger brother about how much he should charge for a baptism. Later, when Brian and his siblings go door-to-door to raise money, they find themselves in the home of someone (played by Arrested Development’s Tony Hale) who needs a messiah’s services to drive out unwanted–and apparently invisible–guests, producing a remarkably comedic scene in which Brian is forced to confrot someone else with similar delusions.
The mockumentary format allows Brian to talk at some length about why he believes that he’s a messiah (he describes “miracles” that he performs; he introduces us to his collection of Jesus figurines) and also allows Hansen to play with the conventions of the documentary (and now the mockumentary) genre, with the film recalling the Michael McKean/Christopher Guest collaborations (Best in Show, This is Spinal Tap), Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts, and most explicitly, for me at least, Chris Smith’s American Movie. The film plays with documentary tropes (including the use of vocal distortion and shadows to protect a character’s “anonymity,” and the documentarian’s occasional abuse of his poisition of knowledge with regards to his subjects. In Hansen’s film, the mockumentary approach works best when staging the drama between the three siblings, particularly when Brian’s sister, Miriam glances at the camera, indicting the filmmaker for his complicity in sustaining Brian’s delusions. In this regard, the film’s title seems especially resonant: what role are these characters serving in encouraging Brian in his delusions?
The film also reminds me, to some extent, of religious satires such as Saved, although Hansen’s film is significantly less inhospitable towards people who are religious (in an interview, Hansen compares it more readily to Life of Brian). But the comedy–and the film’s critique–derives primarily from Brian’s capacity for believing himself to be a messiah without delivering any of the good works or displaying any of the generosity that one might expect out of him. This is best illustrated in a scene in which Brian is so caught up in his own attempts to locate his “higher purpose” that he is oblivious for several days to the fact that his sister has left home (update: these family dynamics might also recall Napoleon Dynamite, with which Hansen’s film has some afinity).
The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah was only recently completed and does not yet have distribution (in fact seeing the film this early in the game seems to be one of the perks of having a film blog). The film is currently making the rounds at film festivals, and I hope it receives the much wider audience that it deserves.