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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"PHYLLIS AND HAROLD"

Phyllis and Harold is the latest in a series of confessional documentaries that also includes Kurt Kuenne's Dear Zachary and Morgan Dews' Must Read After My Death. The filmmaker, Cindy Kleine, has chosen her own parents as her subject, and the movie dissects their marriage in a way that's kind of fascinating but also kind of disturbing. Why someone would want to lay bare their parents' marital issues for the world to see is beyond me, but that doesn't detract from the film's insightfulness.

Phyllis and Harold Kleine were married for 59 years. Over the course of twelve years, their daughter interviewed them. It quickly became clear that nearly six decades of marriage was not, in this case, some great love story. Phyllis confesses to her daughter's video camera that she "married the wrong man" - something she figured out early on. While her husband provided for her and took her on vacations across the globe, she stayed with him more out of convenience than passion. Harold, on the other hand, tells a different story. He paints their union through rose-colored glasses, either oblivious to the problems or in denial of them.

The pivotal point in the movie comes when Phyllis cops to a five-year affair she had early in the marriage. The other man, a co-worker, was the true love of her life, she claims, and she continued to think about him long after it ended. Recognizing her mother's long-standing unhappiness, Cindy Kleine (aided by her sister) helps Phyllis locate and make contact with her former flame, even going so far as to lie to Harold to keep him from finding out so the two could rendezvous.

There is something kind of icky about the idea of a child - even a grown one - helping a parent to cheat, but Kleine makes no bones about favoring her mother. The movie could accurately have just been called Phyllis because she's the one it is more sympathetic too. Whether or not you agree with what she does, Kleine does a good job of drawing her mother's long-repressed feelings out. This aging woman speaks with surprising frankness about her life and, more importantly, the remorse she feels for not having followed her heart those many years ago. She's a sad, compelling woman, even if you disagree with her actions.

I wish Kleine had been as probing with her father as she is with her mother. Despite some references to his drinking, Harold doesn't seem like a particularly bad guy. The film as a whole would have been stronger if we understood him more. Granted, Harold may not have answered direct questions honestly, but even if he hedged, we doubtlessly could have detected things about him from his non-answers.

Kleine uses animation to depict things she could not get on camera, including her own meeting with the other man. These segments help to fill in some of the gaps. She also makes effective use of her parents' personal photos, which show a happy couple at various places around the world and, therefore, present an ironic undercurrent to what Phyllis tells the camera.

Although parts of Phyllis and Harold made me uncomfortable, it held me captive the whole time. The film works toward an emotionally suspenseful ending, as we wait to see whether Phyllis gets back together with the other man or whether she's simply built this up into something bigger than it was over the years. It's been said that the greatest drama can be found in an ordinary human life. That is what Phyllis and Harold ultimately shows quite well. After nearly six decades of unsatisfying marriage, Phyllis Kleine decided it wasn't too late to try to be happy. Whether you find her actions heroic or questionable, her story is gripping.

( out of four)


Phyllis and Harold is unrated but contains adult subject matter. The running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes.

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