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Greater Southbridge
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by Chris Parry

"A film about the town you grew up in and hated... mostly."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2003 HOLLYWOOD UNDERGROUND FESTIVAL: In this slowly shrinking world of blind consumerism and bland artistic vision, films like Greater Southbridge are inevitably ignored by the power players, seen by few, and end up withered on the vine of What Could Have Been. And that's a damn shame, because every year there are dozens of films like Greater Southbridge - some better and plenty worse - which deserve to find an audience that can sit down and enjoy them for the fine eclectic viewing experiences that they are. Greater Southbridge is a documentary trek taken by a couple of guys who didn't understand why there were so many weirdos in their hometown. Over the course of six years of filming, they didn't come any closer to understanding why the weirdos were there, but they certainly came a little closer to understanding the weirdos themselves. The result is a flick that is very funny, very heart-felt and as good a first-time directorial effort as you could ever hope for.

Southbridge sits in Massachusetts like one of hundreds of sore thumbs nationwide. The United States is presently full of dead and dying areas like this one, formerly thriving towns on their way to cityhood that found themselves abandoned by the industries that they helped to build when it became easier to manufacture goods over the border.

In Southbridge, the company that abandoned ship was American Optical, formerly the overwhelmingly largest employer in town and now a thriving resident of Mexico. When AO left, so too did much of the income of Southbridge's residential base, and now, years later, the streets are still rife with people wondering how to make ends meet.

But that's not to say that Southbridge is the new Flint. There's not so much a sense of despair about the residents of this berg, nor the spend-happy government morons that whittled away Flint's public purse; here, there's more a sense of community. The homeless seem to be the happiest homeless folks around. The insane seem to have their heads occasionally better screwed on than you and me. And the drunk and drug dependent... well, at least they smile a lot.

Jerry Sciesniewski is the greatest exponent of Southbridge that there could ever be.

Jerry's job: Collecting returnable bottles and cans.
Jerry's hobby: Creating an all-girl rock'n'roll band.
Jerry's IQ: Far lower than the level of his ambition, far smaller than the size of his heart, and far slower than his speech.

Jerry is at once the place where Greater Southbridge becomes worrying and interesting. When we're introduced to he and his compadre weirdos, the first impression is that we're about to watch a film that laughs and points at local freaks - almost a low budget reality show. But credit Jerry himself for turning this project into something far more important, and memorable.

Jerry is the civic centre of Southbridge. He's the link between derelict and income-earner, crazy man and housewife, the worst of humanity and the best of it. In a place like New York, Jerry wouldn't last six days, but in Southbridge he's got such an obvious big heart that, while the 'regular folk' may giggle at his weird ways, they'll also collect all of their bottles and cans and drop them at his door. They'll give him a free haircut "because he doesn't have any money," and even the local government representative can appreciate the weekly mail that Jerry sends him (complete with $5 of stamps, "you can never be too careful with the post office") espousing an expansion of the returnables law ("five cents is not a joke - money doesn't grow on trees!").

While Jerry's a big bear of a guy who summons a soft spot in everyone around him, even when he's being very odd, not all of Southbridge's weirdos are as civic minded, and that's where Greater Southbridge really hits its stride. When asked if he's ever seen any racism in Southbridge, a local resident replies, "No... I'm into sports." Another talks of his theory that Paul McCartney not only had John Lennon killed, but also Linda McCartney ("I could get in trouble for saying it, but..."). Still another answers the question of why there are so many weirdos in Southbridge with the simple sum-up, "Well, because the town sucks."

Director Rod Murphy seems to have started this project out as a gag, something to have some fun with, and an idea that really held no narrative, no theory, no question to pose. But over the course of six years spent getting to know these people, the odd exterior is worn away to reveal the heart beneath, and to Murphy's credit, he shows that heart - in spades - on the screen.

When Danny, a big guy known to many by the nickname Hamburger Man, is being interviewed about how sometimes people pick on him, you can hear the yells of "hamburger" coming from down the street. Danny's reaction to those words tells you everything you need to know about whether these are objects to be laughed at or people who should be valued.

To be sure, everyone on screen is made fun of - crazies, non-crazies, oldies, youngsters, even the filmmakers themselves. But for every moment of laughter,there's another moment of intraspection. When Jerry tells Murphy, "even smart people have problems, it's not a perfect world you know," it's very hard not to notice that there's intelligence and faith and pain and love trapped in that malfunctioning body.

The world is full of Southbridge's, and maybe the important thing to be taken home from this movie experience is that those people you're laughing at live right next door to you. Yeah, they're hysterical to watch and analyze and giggle at, but just remember...they see you too. What do you think they do when YOUR back is turned?

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originally posted: 04/23/03 11:01:58
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User Comments

3/26/11 Rene C It oddly akes you want to hang with some of these nuts for a day or two. 4 stars
11/22/08 Shaun Wallner Hilarious Movie! 5 stars
4/11/04 Chuck Larson I'm speechless... 5 stars
3/28/04 Elijah Green Saw it at Harrisburg FilmFest, loved it 5 stars
7/13/03 jason E. This film at time reminds me of myself 5 stars
6/21/03 Sheryl Massenburg Great stuff! 5 stars
5/28/03 Tom E. GREAT film! You laugh and feel for the Southbridge folks all at once. 5 stars
5/08/03 rhonda pearlman very funny and touching at the same time. 5 stars
4/30/03 James A. Fagerquist This film looks over individuals that are so often overlooked in today's society. A+ 5 stars
4/25/03 tom earls outstanding. The audience would have stayed for hours to see more of the characters. 5 stars
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  11-Apr-2003 (NR)
  DVD: 16-Jan-2007



Directed by
  Rod Murphy

Written by
  Rod Murphy
  Justin Earls
  Scott B. Morgan


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