It would seem to take an abnormal set of circumstances to make Sibyl Fox to be kept waiting for anything, but the proud African-American woman from New Orleans who suffers no fools can be seen in “Time” being left lingering on the line as the judge’s secretary in her husband Robert’s parole case is dithering around. Director Garrett Bradley wisely lets the moment settle in, the gaps between each ring of the phone taking an eternity and the Fox’s quiet frustration over how long it takes for anyone to answer after being put on hold washing across her face, and the realization grows that if you feel a minute is too much to ask to be patient, try 20 years.
“Time,” Bradley’s first full-length documentary feature after emerging as one of the preeminent nonfiction filmmakers of her generation — after her 2014 fiction/doc hybrid feature debut “Below Dreams,” she dedicated herself to shorts — is, not surprisingly, a stunner, telling the story of Sibyl and Robert, a pair of high school sweethearts with aspirations of opening a hip-hop clothing store in Shreveport. As Fox recounts, they bought a house, made their first investment in the business and almost as nonchalantly as she mentions the first two checked boxes on their way towards world domination, they plotted to rob a bank with Robert’s nephew to put themselves on firmer financial footing. The planned heist didn’t go according to plan and Richard ended up being sentenced to 60 years in prison for armed robbery with no expectation of parole.
It doesn’t ever need to be said that Fox’s determination to get Robert out is likely why a judge is even considering his case, but “Time” rarely states the obvious — or has the luxury to — with Bradley weaving a transfixing narrative together in which Fox and Robert are both ever-present, but only one is ever physically around. Drawing on home videos Fox recorded of herself and children Remington, Justus and Freedom so their father wouldn’t miss out on their youth, the film is able condense the family’s experience while expressing the totality of the emotional toll of Robert’s time away, with his sons shown in the present day finding strength in their headstrong mother, but clearly feeling his absence as they matriculate into high school and beyond. Garrett and editor Gabriel Rhodes are also able to locate the ineffable difference between the family being strong because they have to be and what their natural inclinations would be, a burden that becomes part of the sense of injustice that courses throughout “Time” when so much of the family’s predicament is rooted in racial inequity that was established long before they were part of the world.
An ingenious score from Jamieson Shaw and Edwin Montgomery that moves from ragtime piano to more contemporary synth and back again elegantly places the film in this larger generational context, as well as the occasional interview footage with Fox’s mother who speaks explicitly about mass incarceration being a form of modern-day slavery, but Bradley keeps the focus on Fox, a charismatic figure who would be worthy of a movie separate from the situation she finds herself in based on force of personality alone, yet becomes especially compelling as someone who can’t afford to live in the past and yet still has every day consumed by it since she’s devoted to Robert’s release. While she occupies a liminal space, the filmmaker vividly captures exactly where she is in her life and her place in a larger cultural struggle, allowing “Time” really to reveal all.