There’s a scene in AJ Schnack and David Wilson’s “We Always Lie to Strangers” that’s likely deserving of its own article, so incredible and likely incredibly difficult to pull off technically in order for its subject to speak freely. It takes place in a car where Branson mayor RaeAnne Presley is discussing her family history and recalling the passage of her father. A public figure and full of Southern pride, she’s reticent to let her guard down during much of the film despite having plenty of screen time. Yet because there’s somehow a camera placed on the outside of her car somehow peering into the windshield while she’s making her daily rounds, there’s a kind of candor onscreen that seems remarkably rare.
Such moments aren’t rare, however, in “We Always Lie to Strangers,” which feels like the film Schnack and his loyal collaborators have been building towards for years. Although his first film “Gigantic” could coast on countless anecdotes about They Might Be Giants from famous fans, it’s been obvious he’s wanted to be more formally daring each time out, deconstructing the legend of Kurt Cobain to let him tell his story through audio recordings of the singer over images of the places that he’d been in “About a Son” and bringing together a group of filmmakers from various perspectives to find the reality in the staging of the Democratic National Convention in “Convention.” The films have long delivered in traditional ways, but in mixing a more experiential style in from the foundation of obviously deep interviews, the work has grown to feel more and more immersive.
As it turns out, the subject of Branson, the tiny town in Missouri that plays host to millions of tourists every year is a natural for such treatment, given that it’s a place of tradition that increasingly finding modernity leaking in. Shot over two-and-a-half years, “We Always Lie to Strangers” is less of a history of the place than a rich snapshot of potentially changing times, with Priuses spotted in places where few cars even go and an economy based on stage shows increasingly stocked with performers whose sexual preference may not jive with the audiences’ values. These tensions become a focus of the film, but not until after Schnack and Wilson has profiled four of the main acts on the city’s glittery strip – the Magnificent Variety Show, Presleys’ Country Jubilee, the Lennon Family, and Showstoppers, all of which provide wholesome family entertainment for crowds that thirst for yesteryear.
While the more bold-faced Branson stars such as Yakov Schmirnoff and the late Andy Williams make cameos in the film as part of public appearances, those who live paycheck to paycheck on singing and dancing seven days a week take center stage quite literally. Not surprisingly, Schnack and Wilson find a grand assortment of big personalities with interesting lives, from Elisha, a triple threat who does costume changes in 30 seconds flat whose show is particularly threatened by a bad economy, to Chip, a gay dancer trying raise two boys in conservative country, to the entire Lennon clan, who were lured to Branson by Lawrence Welk’s son Larry and boast 133 first cousins, whose serve as an endless supply for their homespun revues. Even though none are shy, it’s amazing they all stand out since Schnack and Wilson blend the individual stories so harmoniously that there’s a real understanding of the whole community.
As a result, it’s well worth recognizing that the film captures a story than manufacture one, with the filmmakers’ patience rewarded with a climax at an air show where the fireworks in the sky don’t compare with the explosive happenings on the ground as medical emergencies ensue and frustration over Branson’s hard times come to a boil. Still, “We Always Lie to Strangers” is no downer, a movie as entertaining as the tireless performers it presents, healthily skeptical but not condescending and a simply a joy to watch while revealing a complicated reality about not just the “Bermuda Triangle” of Branson, as one resident puts it, but the nation that surrounds it.
“We Always Lie to Strangers” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play SXSW twice more on Tuesday, March 12th at 11:15 a.m. at the Violet Crown and Friday, March 15th at 2 p.m. at the Alamo Ritz.