There's a sense of doodling inconsequence to this Southern-set story of feuding families and tobacco giants, but that's part of Bright Leaves's charm. A chance encounter with a film collector leads director Ross McElwee on an autobiographical journey through Carolina in search of the story behind Gary Cooper melodrama Bright Leaf (1950). He's convinced the film was loosely based on the life of his great grandfather - a former tobacco tycoon and creator of the famous Bull Durham brand.
Eager to discover the truth about his family history, McElwee is spurred on by watching this Michael Curtiz film about the tobacco industry - "a cinematic heirloom - a surreal home movie enacted by Hollywood stars" - and slowly pieces together the story of his distant relative who made his fortune in tobacco, then lost it all to his arch rival and spent 15 years pursuing his claim in the courts until he went bankrupt.
"A DIFFUSED BUT ENRICHING EXPERIENCES"
In the process of delving into the past, McElwee meditates on North Carolina's tobacco industry and the "agricultural-pathological trust fund" bequeathed by his relative on the state and its inhabitants. For North Carolina, the tobacco industry is not only a way of life but also of death - and the industry's toll on the state's chain-smoking inhabitants is all too apparent.
Smoothly morphing from autobiographical odyssey into a meditation on history, smoking and the narcotic effects of film, Bright Leaves turns into a diffused but enriching experience as McElwee's itinerant journey takes in ailing cancer patients, quirky tobacco traders and a "rabid film theorist" who refuses to talk about Bright Leaf until he straps McElwee into a wheelchair to prove his theories about cinema and motion.
At first it seems that McElwee has bitten off more than he can chew in this expansive trip down memory lane. But the filmmaker's rich, husky-voiced narration manages to shape this collection of half-formed ideas and observations into a tightly packed little roll-up that's worth taking a puff on.