She cries and flails, questioning her role in the world as her family burns from the inside and the only thing that hears her is an inanimate tape recorder. Her name is Allis; she's the mother of four increasingly troubled children and the wife of husband who drinks too much, travels to exotic places for work, sleeps with glamorous young women and then sends her tapes of his paramours singing a sultry song in the background. Allis is unhappy, to say the very least. And now that she's dead, the whole world is listening.
After her death in 2001, her grandson, filmmaker Morgan Dews, discovered a staggering bounty of archival footage awaiting him: 50 hours of audiotapes, not just of her own confessions but of protestations of love from her children and husband and even knock-down, drag-out screaming matches between everyone in the family. Among the hundreds of home movies and recordings laid an envelope of written documents labeled by Allis: 'Must Read After My Death.â?�
So begins the journey, shown here without narration or outside commentary, of Allis' family's five-year self-destruction, beginning in the tumultuous year of 1963. We find them still very much in the comfortable cage of denial, their literal white picket fences advertising a unit that functions uncomfortably but not without moments of happiness. Charley, the absent patriarch and a high-school dropout, has married above himself and is starting to display signs of insecurity-driven aggression toward the well-educated and traveled Allis. He loves her, but doesn't understand why she can't tend the house better and manage the four kids with more stability. He's also pulled the 'open relationshipâ?� switcheroo on her: amassing a travelogue of female companions and knowing all along she won't find the same luck housebound in a small town.
They see a psychiatrist, one of those Age of Anxiety quacks who lays everything ' her son's undiagnosed dyslexia, her daughter's sudden and mysterious need to be far away from the father and, of course, her own dissatisfaction ' squarely on her own shoulders. 'He says a man wants to marry a Woman with a capital W and I'm not a Woman with a capital W.â?� The shrink has the slow-learning son committed to a mental institution and the daughter (Dews' mother) runs away. In the blink of an eye, the family crumbles.
Dews and Allis serve as the final judgment on the recent film adaptation of Richard Yates' 1962 family dysfunction novel Revolutionary Road. If you thought Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio looked ridiculous lashing out at each other from beyond Hollywood mugs before, Must Read spits on its grave. Here are real people, articulate, thoughtful human beings screaming from the past, 'Why can't I be happy?!â?� Everything Allis believes is so wrong (less so as she wizens up over the years) about her beliefs on child-rearing (grant the children the freedom to think for themselves) and being a woman (I deserve to persue my own interests) was being answered at the same time by second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan ('As she made the beds, shopped for groceries â?¦ lay beside her husband at night 'Â she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question 'Â 'Is this all?'â?�), by Yates himself and by an entire generation of female eunuchs. She was not even remotely alone, but it's difficult to see that when you're huddled in the basement talking into a crackling microphone.
Must Read is a shocking but endearing peek under the stairs of suburban life in the sixties, a film that steps back from the mayhem and almost cruelly lets it play out in real time, propelling toward an ending that left me profoundly grateful for how far the women's movement has come ' and for that matter, the constant refinement of the family concept, still slouching toward inclusiveness ' but immensely saddened by the wreckage left in its wake.