We get to see two very distinct sides to the main figure in this documentary, the titular “Melissa”. On one side, a woman who abandons her infant son in North Carolina to live a wild life in Japan taking drugs daily and stripping to pay for it. Fast forward seven years to see the other, a married suburbanite, trying to reconnect with her son and parents, all relationships civil on the outside but past resentments and traumas threatening to bubble over at any moment.
In many ways the film itself is like its protagonist (to call her that); it has two very distinct sides. And unfortunately, also like its protagonist, one side is not as good as the other. I am not referring to the alternating footage from modern day (professionally shot and distanced from the subjects) to seven years ago showing Melissa’s stripping past (grainy handicam footage). Rather I refer to the two women at the centre of this explorative drama; the aforementioned Melissa, and her friend, Israeli photographer Yael, who took the intimate footage of her years ago and is now striving to reconnect with her friend and consult her over how their lives turned out after their wild youth. Unfortunately, while the natural story of Melissa is fascinating and carries itself well, the director (Limor Pinhasov) as well as most likely Yael (serving as a co-producer, writer, and even camera operator) at times push Yael’s problems and worries to the fore front, which both interrupts the flow of the film, and quite frankly is not as interesting as Melissa and her attempts to atone for past misdeeds.
I feel the parts of the film dealing with Melissa are very well handled, and offer a fascinating insight into a rather seedy world. Right from the start of the film we see her darker side as she frankly discusses her cocaine use and writhes on stage for Japanese businessmen completely naked. She seems ecstatic when one slides twenty dollars to her. Why? Because now she can buy more drugs. It’s certainly a gritty, and almost dark, introduction. However this darkness never eclipses her humanity. There is a beautiful moment captured as she sings and dances along in private to The Supreme’s “You can’t hurry love”, offering tremendous insight to the viewer as she does so completely naked seemingly unbothered by the camera’s presence. This film feels almost intrusive at times, not just because we see these women naked or snorting cocaine off a key in a public toilet, but because of the intimate nature of what they discuss. However this intrusion only increases our involvement in the women’s lives and the story. As the two women lay together, arms around each other, semi-naked, Yael comments a passing train rumbling by sounds “like the end of the world”. “It’s ok, I’m ready for it. At least I’m going with a cool person” replies Melissa. With intimacy like that, it is almost a privilege to view these little moments of two women’s lives, captured long before their being used in a documentary was even considered.
Fast forward seven years to Melissa as a small town housewife, and while the idea of the film as a documentary has now taken shape it has lost none of the intimacy that makes the earlier sections so compelling. If anything the now increased cast of players (such as Melissa’s abandoned son, now grown, or her mother, painfully repressed about her daughter’s life) only adds to the drama. The contrasting chronologies complement each other so well that Pinhasov is able to cut between the two seamlessly, adding to the story. One particularly effective section is when Melissa’s son in the present day explains to Yael why he thinks his mother abandoned him, intercut with Melissa seven years ago explaining to Yael the same thing. Both are near tears, and it shows us better than anything else how old wounds can continue to hurt far down the line. The decision of the filmmakers to spend as much time in Melissa’s house as possible helps tremendously as the presence of all these characters in the same space increased drama, whether for tension (an interview where Melissa discusses her mother’s potential complicity in her abused childhood stops suddenly when the mother herself walks into the room) or for resolution (there is a beautiful moment where son and mother bond as he texts her, though she is in the same room, to make her feel wanted, though Melissa is clearly still not quite familiar with being referred to as “mom”). If the film consisted of just telling Melissa’s story it would be nothing less than a compelling, skilfully told and highly unique story.
However, while the narrative suggests otherwise, this isn’t just Melissa’s story. Yael, for whom this is a very personal project, shoehorns herself in at the expense of the other far more compelling narrative, and while to have a successful documentary there must be passion in the subject, this is a perfect example of where too much of a vested interest undermines the film. At best Yael’s prominent presence in this film simply complicates matters, at worst is dilutes the narrative and leads to boring sections of nothing new being discovered. Put simply it is explained that Yael is considering having children but is not sure whether, with her past, this is a good idea. She decides (dubiously?) that the only way to tell for sure is to turn up, unannounced, at Melissa’s house, with no contact for the past seven years, and proceed to seek her advice. For most of the film this motive is not addressed, which is puzzling since it is outlined as the aim of the trip and the film, but this is actually a blessing in disguise. This is because when it is addressed we are treated to Yael speaking to the camera directly, speaking a lot but saying very little. Her curious obsession with this woman from her past is certainly interesting (other words for it could range from touching to downright creepy) but as no explanation is offered for it it adds little to the film. I found myself forgetting that Yael had this motive for coming, and when the shots of her addressing the camera inevitably came around again I found myself desperately wanting to get back to and know what happened next with Melissa. At the end of the film when the title cards informed us of what the future held for both woman I found myself almost entirely ambivalent to Yael’s, a poor sign in a film in which she is pushed forward as a main character. I am not saying that Yael should not be in the film at all. Having one of the filmmakers with a shared perspective of Melissa’s seedy past is a crucial in-road for speaking to the various family members (especially the mother), and Yael’s continual habit of taking photos captures some beautiful single images that couldn’t have been told much better in motion (such as the family photo, seemingly unified but putting up a brave front). However she should have remained merely as a mouth piece and receiver, allowing Melissa to open up to her and therefore the cameras (and crucially the viewers) in the process. This being said, I hasten to add that the sections of the film where Yael dominates the story outside of the first 5 minutes probably amounts to no more than a sixth of screen time. The remaining whole of the film deals with Melissa, her family, and all their problems. And while I found myself unmoved by Yael and her plight, when Melissa’s title card came around at the end, I not only found myself gripped by what it would say, but I genuinely wanted her to come out of this ok, or at least on the up. For a documentary to not only interest you but involve you in such a way, surely that’s a sign of it succeeding in what it strives to achieve?
by Cameron Wauchope