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Archie's Betty
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by Jay Seaver

"Searching for the real Riverdale."
3 stars

There's probably a fairly decent documentary short to be carved out of "Archie's Betty", although it would probably take the sort of ruthless editing and change of focus that leaves it an altogether different film. The short feature that got made isn't bad, but it's a little too concerned with itself more than its subject, and those just interested in the origins of the Archie Comics gang might want it pared down.

Though others are often cited as the creators of Archie Andrews and his high-school classmates - writer Harry Shorten and MLJ Magazines co-founder John Goldwater (whose family still owns what is now Archie Comics) - Bob Montana is considered by many to fit that role best. He illustrated the character's first appearance in Pep Comics and would later draw the newspaper strip for about thirty years. In 1988, lifelong Archie fan Gerald Peary wrote an article in The Boston Globe's Sunday magazine section that about how Montana spent his teen years in nearby Haverhill, Massachusetts, and how the town frequently served as the template for the comics' setting of Riverdale, with many characters based directly on his classmates. As the film starts, Peary is returning to Haverhill and that article, looking to fill in some gaps and correct errors.

There turn out to be enough of both that Peary seems like he might have been better off pulling what he could from the article but never actually mentioning it. The first half or so of the film spends so much time on what he wrote back then that what he says later in the movie has a hard time carrying the same weight. That's unfortunate, because the actual story is just as interesting, even if it often clashes with the initial narrative of Montana immortalizing that image of small-town America. Peary seems unable to let Haverhill go in the editing room, even though it forces the film down a number of blind alleys until it's forced in another direction.

It also weakens Peary as the film's narrator and guide, as each "new" bit of information that comes from an interview conducted well before his article makes the viewer wonder just what sort of research he did the first time around beyond gathering information that supported his pet theory. There's a point to be made about just how much easier collecting all that is today than twenty-five years ago, but it's not made; for all that Peary and producing partner Shaun Clancy insert themselves into the film, they seldom seem to be discovering things or delivering a unique perspective.

That all said: There are interesting stories and personalities here, and while they may be small in scale, that's what makes them good fits for this sort of movie on this subject: Archie comics have long succeeded because they reflect experiences people understand with upbeat jokes and well-done art, and the assurance that these very positive cartoon characters come from someplace real reinforces that, especially considering that these comics have often been derided as saccharine in a more cynical world. Underneath that, there's a more melancholy idea of how people will grasp for a connection between their lives (especially toward the end) and something that will last - or perhaps be pleasantly surprised that such a connection exists. While the final centerpiece interview with Betty Tokar - a lovely woman in her nineties who was Montana's girlfriend around the time Archie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica were created - could cut the stuff about doing the interview back a little, there's a genuine warmth to it. It thankfully doesn't overpower the intriguing balance of pride and modesty in many of the others, but wraps things up on a tone that doesn't undermine the subject matter.

To a certain extent, some of the film's other shaggy characteristics may help with that; as a critic and professor, Peary has been figuring out what makes films work for a long time. And while I suspect that this movie may not tell the fans who already know Bob Montana's name much they didn't know, there are a lot of people who like the comics enough that they might be interested in learning a little more, even if they do have to backtrack a bit midway through.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=29331&reviewer=371
originally posted: 06/18/15 09:43:11
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Directed by
  Gerald Peary

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