Posted by Redgrrrl26 on:
"No Services Ahead." This is the sign on the road leading into Darwin, California, population 35, which is the subject of the documentary feature Darwin. The "No Services" sign was put up, as one resident admits, to discourage any casual visitors from wandering into town. This sentiment of keeping the world at arm's length does seem to pervade the tiny speck of a town, just down the road from the China Lake Naval Air Warfare Station in unwelcoming Death Valley.
Originally constructed around the site of a once-working mine, the town of Darwin has a checkered past and seems to be a magnet, in the words of resident Hank Jones, "for people who've had problems." The town's rough-and-tumble history of drugs, drinking, prostitution, and arguments settled in gunfights still seeps into the lives of its current inhabitants. Many of them talk about violent or criminal pasts, struggles with drug addiction, and time spent in prison. And almost every resident profiled spoke of being on a second and, in at least one case, fifth marriage.
Perhaps this is no coincidence. Darwin offers a refuge for people who have struggled to fit into society and allows its inhabitants a latitude of personal expression they probably wouldn't have in a more formal, structured environment. After all, Darwin is the place that has no churches or organized religion and no real government to speak of. This is the land of people like Mayor Francis, a "self-appointed" mayor who didn't really do much, but just decided to start calling herself mayor. Nobody objected. And besides, as local Monty reminds us with a shrug, she still wound up the same way everyone else does: she died. (At the ripe old age of 92.)
But the film is much more than just a collection of quirky personalities; all of the residents profiled become complex and very real people by the end. We meet the Steel family: Connie (on her 4th marriage), Hank (on his 5th), Connie's transgendered son, Ryal, and his partner, Penny. The set-up sounds sitcom-worthy, but as we get under their skins, learn about their pasts, struggles and conflicts, we end up caring and rooting for them.
Just as we root for resident Susan, the no-nonsense postmaster of the town and the only resident who can say she is actually employed. When Susan attempts to quit smoking part-way through the filming, she puts up a note outside the post office apologizing to everyone if she's been "snippy" lately due to her nicotine withdrawals. She promises the first two weeks are always the hardest and she only has three more days to go.
It's these little moments that help to flesh everyone out, prevent them from lapsing into small (micro?) town caricatures, and which also provide so much pleasure for the viewer. If you have 87 minutes and are in the mood for a funny, captivating and emotionally engaging documentary about an unusual town at the end of a desolate road, please go and check out Darwin.
(And you may just be lucky enough to have future bragging rights. Its appearance at the film festival is the world premiere. The film doesn't look like it has a distribution deal yet although it could definitely be commercially successful. So if it does play in theaters, you can say you saw it before everyone else!)
You have two more chances to see Darwin:
Thursday, February 3, 8:05am at Metro 4, Theater II
Friday, February 4, 4pm at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art