Shortly after 89-year-old grandmother Allis' death in 2001, filmmaker Morgan Dews came upon a staggering archive of audio diaries, transcripts and dictaphone letters that she and the rest of her family had kept throughout the 1960s. Listening to them revealed a piece of his grandmother's life that he had never been made privy to. Integrating these startling tapes with a collage of typically upbeat photographs and home movies, Dews weaves together a chilling, devastating portrait of a family whose happy-go-lucky facade masks six lives in a state of unbearable turmoil and decay. "Must Read After My Death" reminds of 2008's "Revolutionary Road
" in its themes of marital strife and the struggle against conformity in a conformist era, but its emotions, all of them painfully real, run far, far deeper than anything found in that Hollywood-produced melodrama.
Allis begins her recordings after her family's move to the idyllic suburbs of Hartford, Connecticut. Left alone to care for their house and children Anne, Chuck, Bruce and Douglas while husband Charley's work takes him to Australia for four months out of the year, Allis makes it clear from the start that she was not made to be a submissive homemaker. The life she once knew vanished before her eyesshe, like Charley, was married once before, and, unlike Charley, had attended collegeAllis is left trapped in a situation she does not know how to get out of. She loves her kids, to be sure, and struggles to stay in contact with Charley via dictaphone whenever he is gone, but none of it seems to ever be enough for a man who drinks too much and expects those around him to bow to his whims. Gradually, the viewer learns that their marriage is an open one; Charley makes no bones about romancing women overseas, and Allis, at least once, goes on a trip to New York City with a male suitor. Conversations heard between them are so nonchalant on the matter that one hardly believes it at first.
As the 1960s press on and the children grow into teenagers, they are left victims of a verbally, sometimes physically, abusive household where arguments between parents appear to be never-ending. By the time psychologists and psychiatrists are turned to for help, arguably doing nothing but shattering each relationship further, Allis is more often than not forced to hold the burden of blame for the family's failures. With a daughter who ran away and married before finishing high school, one son with a learning disability and another sent to a mental institution, she is left to question the source of what went wrong without knowing the answer. "I brought four wonderful children into the world," Allis ruminates at one point, her voice frantic and cracking, "and where the hell have they gone?!"
"Must Read After My Death" is a mesmerizing documentary, a masterwork of layered storytelling, varying points-of-view, and thought-provoking inferences that speak just as loudly as the silences in the recordings and the words unspoken. In heartbreaking segments, the children, most prominently young teen Bruce, speak angrily about their unhappiness in a home overflowing with fights and tension among one parent who is a domineering alcoholic and another who has been told by authority figures that the man knows best. Charley, one of the doctors ignorantly informs her, is set in his ways, so it would be best for Allis to follow his rules. As the family unravels ever moreafter threatening his dad, Bruce finally moves into a mental institution even though the evidence suggests he doesn't even have a mental problemAllis is brainwashed into believing the fault lies with her. The film succinctly suggests that her downfall throughout the 1960s was that she was a female ahead of her time, yearning to make something meaningful of herself while forced to feel guilt about wanting more than she already had.
The voice most often heardthat of Allis, in tell-all moments of soul-bearing, defeat, and even the rare triumphis the dramatic center of "Must Read After My Death." It is director Morgan Dews, however, who has chosen to bring his family's story to reverberating light. In compiling all of the recordings and home movies and editing them into a 73-minute narrative, he has created an eye-openingly brilliant tapestry that manages to dig beneath the surface of the 1960s' answer to the American Dream and reveal the grim, desperate underbelly that lurked just out of sight. While some things have fortunately changed in the decades since, the core doubts, desires, regrets and sense of helplessness that Allis and her family experienced remain universal truths that we all, at one time or another, must face in our own lives. Tragic in its very connectability and astonishing in its implications, "Must Read After My Death" is non-fictional cinema at its finest, certain to remain one of the best films of the year.