Above and Below is a documentary that cherishes the little moments of its characters, but dreads the crushing overarching reality of their lives and, in a strange way, our own. We are given three stories, each one unique enough to be a different film in themselves. The characters in focus all have been driven from society. They represent a minority who recede from the general public in a desire to escape the personal reality of their lives. Holding them back are past lives, family ties that cling to them like an emotional ball and chain. The film’s subjects inhabit a kind of post-apocalyptic vision, not of a scorched Earth but an internalized wasteland.
Nicholas Steiner, the director of this film, has opted to tell us three stories. The first tells the story of Rick and Cindy, a couple living in the Las Vegas flood channels, literally beneath society. There with another man, Lalo, who goes by the moniker Godfather. The second story tells us of a man living in the California desert, Dave, who lives modestly under harsh, desolate conditions. The third is April, an Iraq war veteran, participating in Mars simulation taking place in a strangely alien-looking Utah landscape. Steiner gives them something special, a brief but meaningful profile that may not amount to much other than to allow their humble voices be heard. Particularly notable here are Rick and Cindy who, despite their isolated living space, never truly feel lonely whenever sharing a shot.
It is an earnest documentary, whose filmmaker never seems to interfere with the individuals as they go on with their daily routines, acts that that feel alien to us but have become commonplace for them. Unfortunately, the innocence and unchallenged victimhood that characterizes Above and Below is problematic. Steiner forces us to admire his subjects’s modest lifestyle, their self-sufficiency and resilience in the face of shortcomings, never allowing a simple moment of regret to really manifest any of his three subjects. His film observes its individuals quietly and sympathetically, but in doing so Steiner never truly engages his topic.
Nicholas Steiner’s documentary plays out like good fiction, competently intertwining the three stories into a personal narrative of lost human connection. Unfortunately, good fiction is all this documentary really amounts to. If Steiner sought to tell us a detailed, articulate account of any of the three subjects in his film, I assume he would have done so, but he never does. Instead, Steiner films them with brevity, letting them get a word in and allowing us a peek into their peculiar lives. With self-indulgent montages, reflective camerawork, and odd, but not uncommon, bits of myth-making, Above and Below is a work of slick artistry but at the cost of something truly transcendent.