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Style is a question many documentarians are implicitly cautioned to avoid. Documentary favors the unforeseen and the accidental, and style suggests the inverse: It gives the impression of control, or of the shopworn criticism, “manipulation.” Style suggests deceit. Robert Greene understands that, instead, sculpting reality is precisely the job of every documentarian. And he understands that addressing the question of style doesn’t preclude him from finding the truth.
Toward the end of Greene’s astonishing Actress, Brandy Burre, its subject and star, returns home from the emergency room after toppling face-first into pavement, her cheek a violet bruise. But Greene defers this explanation, staging instead a fraught tableau: Burre meets the camera’s slow-motion gaze fixedly, almost defiantly, as we’re left to contemplate the damage. It’s a provocative image — provocative for the grim associations it inspires, certainly, but also for the flicker of ambiguity.
This is typical of Greene’s audacious, even radical methods. The film follows the 40-year-old Burre, an actress best known for playing Carcetti’s mayoral campaign manager in the third season of The Wire, as she struggles to reignite her long-waning career after years on hiatus. A mother of two languishing in the purgatory of Beacon, New York, Burre craves more than mediocrity as a “Beacon mom,” but the industry doesn’t seem willing to accommodate her.
Greene seems fascinated by the contradictory identities — each a kind of real-life performance — that Burre endeavors to reconcile, and he is profoundly sensitive to the emotional truth these performances describe.