Dadetown (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Dadetown is a "meta-documentary" about small-town America in the 1990s. Is a rural, close-knit community still the "American dream", or, with the closing of factories, has it become a kind of American nightmare? A stunning first feature from director Russ Hexter, Dadetown leads to an unforgettable revelation during the closing credits. Hexter, at the age of 26, has made a film that puts to shame the work of directors many years his senior. Sadly, this will be the only movie from the NYU grad. Two days before he was scheduled to accompany Dadetown to the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, Hexter died.

"The small town is the backbone of America," asserts one of Dadetown's residents in the interview that begins the film. Indeed, Dadetown, NY is one of many nameless, faceless American towns where family and religious values define the community. In a place that doesn't have a mall or a theater, the church is the social center. Everyone buys their groceries at the same small store, and the Mayor is on a first-name basis with each of his constituents.

All is not right in Dadetown, however. When Hexter and his film crew arrive to make a "15 minute documentary for PBS", the town is in a state of flux. Gorman Metal, the industry which has employed most of Dadetown's men for decades, is downsizing. The factory, which once made fuselages for WWII planes, has been forced into the production of paper clips and staples, and now cheaper foreign companies are driving them out of business. The result is unemployment.

Even as Gorman's fortunes decline, a new corporation, American Peripheral Imaging (API), relocates to the upstate New York community, bringing more than one-hundred employees from places like Buffalo and Philadelphia. These newcomers, with fancy houses and yuppie lifestyles, don't mesh well with the "hick" longtime residents of Dadetown, and a cultural schism develops. The Gorman layoffs fuel resentment against the API newcomers, with violence as the inevitable result.

Dadetown is the most thought-provoking examination of the collapse of a community since Roger and Me. Absent here is Michael Moore's sarcasm -- Dadetown opts instead for a more serious account of events. The result, partially achieved through effective editing, is a compelling and emotionally-stirring account of cultural friction and how mass unemployment damages the psyche of a town. Hexter gets into the minds of the residents, and the candid nature of some of his interviews is amazing. No one seems to have problems opening up to the film maker. Everyone has something to say, but, despite all the questions, there are no answers.

Dadetown highlights a problem afflicting communities and individuals all across the country as the face of business undergoes a change. We can no longer rely on our employers to provide for us. No jobs are safe. Whether in Dadetown or New York City, the bottom line worker is always the first victim of middle-management judgment errors and upper management selfishness.

Yet there is another issue addressed with unexpected force by Dadetown -- the intrusiveness of documentary film makers when producing their features. Do they merely record events or do they become part of what they're filming? Roger and Me, Brother's Keeper, and numerous other films, despite never addressing this topic, make us wonder. Dadetown takes matters to the next level, however, with a unique punchline that calls into question the role and responsibility of documentary film makers. Whatever you do, don't leave before the final credits have rolled. Dadetown's most startling surprise is reserved for them. Only then will you recognize the true brilliance of Hexter's film, and what the movie world has lost as a result of his unexpected death.

Dadetown (United States, 1996)

Director: Russ Hexter
Cast: Bill Garrison, David Phelps, Jim Pryor, Jonathan Shafer, Stephen Beals
Screenplay: Russ Hexter and John Housely
Cinematography: W. J. Gorman
U.S. Distributor:
Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1