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Standing By Yourself (Josh Koury) 2002
Many documentarians hide behind their cameras, editing out any trace of themselves from their finished product. There seems to be an unstated insistence in most nonfiction films that by being present at an event the documentary filmmaker changes nothing about the eventís outcome. While there are a few films that suggest this might be partially true, the introduction of a camera into a small, family environment couldnít possibly be without any repercussions. Conceived as a senior thesis project by its director Josh Koury, Standing By Yourself isnít afraid to show us the scenes in which the subjects address the camera directly. It opens with questioning about why the camera is present. There is a constant reminder that the director is related to the people that heís showing. In whatís probably the filmís emotional climax, we see the director as his mother chastises him for not intervening with his brotherís bad behavior. Because of Kouryís willingness to critique himself and his family in this way, it emerges as a surprisingly personal and refreshingly honest work.
Set in the small town of Clinton New York, Kouryís film chronicles a few nights during which he tags along with his younger brother as he hangs out with his aimless friends. Koury lugs his video camera along as we see the boys being harassed by cops, loitering in empty parking lots, and getting a ďTussin-buzzĒ by drinking bottles of cough syrup. Though thereís a month-long pause in the action midway through the film after Siegfried, one of the kids, goes to jail, the incident barely has any effect on the prevalent mood. These teens are so set in their ways that their lack of direction is manifested in every rambunctious thing that they do. It seems that no amount of correctional action can change them since the environment that they live in is so conducive to their behavior. It becomes apparent that weíre viewing the same world that Kevin Smith satirizes in his New Jersey films, but without the distance provided by Smithís comedy. The film doesnít take an alarmist stance, exactly, since the majority of its characters are related to the director, but one canít help but be a little concerned by what we see on screen. Amid the faux wood paneling and trailer parks that dominate the landscape of the Clinton, there lies an obvious and widespread malaise.
What saves Standing By Yourself from didacticism is its abundant personality and its good sense of humor. Koury looks at his subjects affectionately, so that even the most disturbing sequences (such as the one where the boys look for their fatherís stash) donít seem like a parental call to arms. If anything, the directorís ability to have the sort of hindsight that he does about his recent childhood illustrates that itís a transient phase that is being portrayed. In any case, the film is likely to expertly drum up repressed teenage memories in any viewer. Koury doesnít shape the series of events that make up the film into a traditional narrative, but that probably says more about the truths being portrayed than the ability of the filmmaker. Standing By Yourself is essentially a home movie, but one thatís likely to cut close to home for all of us.
* * * 1/2