Join Or Die Review: The Healing Powers Of Not Bowling Alone [SXSW 2023]

Slash Film

The goal of most journalists who work in the film/TV space, I would assume, is to approach the subject matter of something they are going to review with a certain amount of objectivity. Maybe I’m just speaking for myself, but I digress. The point is, sometimes one is confronted by something so uniquely personal that it becomes difficult to dip into the well of objective thought at all. Such was the case with the upcoming documentary “Join or Die,” which I had the great pleasure of seeing at this year’s SXSW in Austin, Texas. Am I going to see more entertaining movies in 2023? You bet. Am I going to see a movie that makes me more empowered to get off my ass and do something for the betterment of my country? Not a chance.

“Join or Die” is, somewhat basically, a film about why you should join a club. On a more grandiose level, it explains why the fate of America may depend on it. It traces America’s civic unraveling through renowned social scientist Robert Putnam, whose influential “Bowling Alone” research shed light on the declining sense of community in America and may well offer a path out of our current crisis of democracy.

Directed by brother/sister duo Rebecca Davis and Pete Davis, the film is sort of billed as being about bowling and, in some ways, it is. I love bowling more than most things so, naturally, the hooks were in. But then you throw social economics into the blender while presenting the whole thing in cinematic form? It is difficult to imagine a piece of work so aligned with my very specific interests that could compete with this. That having been said, just because a film throws one’s interests into a blender doesn’t mean they can’t drop the ball. Davis and Davis did not drop the ball here.

Bowling For The Fate Of Democracy

Putnam is someone I was not intimately familiar with prior to seeing this documentary. But he serves as one heck of a main character and even those who are woefully uninterested in social science can appreciate the human story at the center of this film all about Putman’s road to discovery. Beyond that, though, the discoveries that Putnam made along the way reveal a great deal about humanity in a democratic society, and it’s hard not to latch onto the concepts being presented to us. In short, people don’t engage with one another on micro levels in the way they used to, and that is having catastrophic macro effects on society.

The way that the Davis siblings manage to use Putnam as a character to hook us into the important subject matter at the heart of this film is a damn good framing device. Still, it is trying to preach a gospel and get to a point, using scientists, data, figures, and impassioned pleas from activists to get that point across over the course of 100 minutes or so. Even with all of its clever animations, that can wear a little thin on some viewers who are looking for a “movie” and not an educational piece.

Even so, the pitch being made to viewers by this documentary is done so in such an effective way that the message gets its hooks under your skin and practically pulls you out of your seat and into action. You will want to join a club, or start a club, or go bowling with a bunch of strangers, because it will feel not only satisfying but something like a civic duty.

Inspiring In The True Sense Of The Word

Documentaries are always a tricky prospect as cinematic entertainment. At their heart, most documentaries are hoping to educate the audience about something, be it a crime or a historical figure, or anything in between. Sometimes that can run the risk of presenting information like a Wikipedia page brought to life. “Join or Die” does its very best to avoid getting caught in that trap, but I would be lying if I said it was as outright entertaining as something like “Fyre,” which documented the disaster that was the Fyre Festival, or “Man on Wire” which was, at one point, the best-reviewed movie in history. But damned if it doesn’t inspire.

It’s easy to feel charged up about something after watching a movie with an audience at a film festival. But can that feeling last beyond the walk to your car when real life starts creeping back into your brain? I can tell you this much: days later, I am still thinking about “Join or Die” and its message about community. I am going to join a club, maybe even start a club. I am no longer going to go bowling alone, which is something I used to do frequently. I am going to do my part for democracy, one strike at a time. If that isn’t the mark of a good documentary, what is? Seek this out if you want to feel something or, more to the point, feel like being a part of something.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

Read this next: The Best Movies Of 2022

The post Join Or Die Review: The Healing Powers Of Not Bowling Alone [SXSW 2023] appeared first on /Film.

/Film – Join Or Die Review: The Healing Powers Of Not Bowling Alone [SXSW 2023]
Author: Ryan Scott
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March 15, 2023

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