Some might characterize what filmmaker Ross McElwee does as navel-gazing. But in the hands of this veteran documentarian, that which might be self-indulgent egomania from a lesser artist is often the stuff of quiet revelation.
Now in his 60s, McElwee has assembled a body of work that's beginning to coalesce as a comprehensive autobiography, covering in various films his early struggles with romantic love, eventual marriage and the birth of a child. But where once he was a man struggling to find his own path forward, he's now a man nearer the end of the trail. As the title suggests, his latest film, Photographic Memory, is about how we process the past.
Yet while McElwee is looking back, it's still largely as a means to understand the present and shape the future. In this case, it's now the road ahead of his son that concerns him: McElwee's oldest child, Adrian, is now 21, and Dad feels like he's losing the connection the two have shared over the years, which he puts on display with clips from throughout the boy's life.
Adrian has more creativity than he knows what to do with, but is combative, unfocused and given to abandoning half-finished projects — and even school — in favor of Internet distractions and hanging out smoking weed.
In an effort to help understand where his son's head is right now, McElwee heads to a small French town in Brittany, where he lived when he was not much older than Adrian. It was here that he got his first job as a photographer, lived in an attic above a photo shop and had a sweetly remembered affair with a young Frenchwoman.
Here, for a time, the film forgets about Adrian and turns into detective documentary: The filmmaker tries to track down, with the help of his hazy memory and an old journal, his former employer and former lover.
Everything about McElwee's trademark style is here: his soothing, often poetic reflections in voice-over, the wandering sense of personal discovery in the narrative. But where those wanderings normally help McElwee and his films take a natural-feeling road to various epiphanies, something about Photographic Memory feels forced — wrangled and wrestled into place.
As McElwee harps on his son's attachment to technology, or on risky behaviors involving drugs or extreme sports, it begins to feel as if he's perhaps not the anxious, overprotective technophobe he seems, but rather a character — the Concerned Luddite Father — written specifically to illustrate the movie's themes. Concerned Luddite Father laments that he records photographs on data cards instead of film; he wonders if he'd have been as drawn to the woman he met in Brittany at 24 if she'd been texting in that cafe rather than holding a bunny; he considers how these kids these days concentrate with so many distractions.
Despite his seeming reluctance to embrace the future, McElwee ends up finding that the past is more elusive and perhaps less comforting than he imagined. One can see that this is where the film is leading: He must confront the memories of his own past, both accurate and misremembered, in order to let his son become the man he's going to be — and not just the sweet boy of McElwee's memory.
Whether or not the filmmaker's on-camera persona is constructed ultimately becomes immaterial. Perhaps it's always been a bit of a put-on, and it's just communicated less elegantly here, with less of the dry, self-effacing wit that helps sell it. For all its obsession with the past, Photographic Memory ends in a simple, genuinely moving interaction between father and son that illustrates McElwee's discovery that memories are nice, but can't be touched and embraced as we can the present.