“This is my part. Nobody else speak.”
Starting off her debut feature with a quote from “Ultralight Beam,” Rebeca Huntt lets us know who holds the reins. The director is “the lens, the subject, the authority” of the Künstlerroman documentary memoir Beba, which charts her childhood, adolescence, and gradual evolution into a filmmaker. Over the course of the film, Huntt travels across New York’s Upper West Side (where she grew up), Venezuela (where her mother immigrated from), Ghana (where she studies for a bit), and the Hudson Valley (where she attends college at Bard). Autobiography has long been the domain of the privileged, particularly men with big lives and big ideas — the artist’s memoir even moreso. With Beba, Huntt claims the genre for herself and the many girls with similar stories. All of us deserve to tell our flawed, imperfect stories in our flawed, imperfect ways.
As Huntt tells it, she and her siblings were the “poorest kids on Central Park West,” first-generation Americans inheriting dysfunction that she likens to a curse her family has borne for generations. Beba is her means of combating that cycle. Huntt is extremely open, putting all of herself, both good and bad, on display. She is starkly aware of her potential for meanness and the ways she lets her family’s worst influences come to the fore, especially when speaking to and about her mother. She is also keenly aware of her own intellect, and the power she has over men. It’s tempting to call Huntt’s portrayal of herself and her world “raw,” but the film is highly stylized — aided by Sophia Stieglitz’s breathtaking cinematography and Isabel Freeman’s editing. (Though it sometimes slips into cliché 16mm cityscape photography.) Scenes featuring Huntt’s family and what she decides to show or hide are often even manipulative.
The unflinching grounding within Huntt’s point of view is the film’s strongest point. But what starts as a way to take responsibility for addressing her family’s issues eventually devolves into myopia that reduces the people in Huntt’s world — family, lovers, friends — to her bullet-point opinions of them. Ultimately the audience only sees what her biases allow us to, sometimes obscured by false equivalencies, with her ignoring the relative privileges she embodies even within the marginality she explores. Underscored by Huntt’s “chronic cruelty,” Beba seems to end up feeding into the family legacy it set out to oppose. If not practiced conscientiously, self-care can mean lacking care for everyone around you. This documentary could have been a collective cleansing experience, but instead it is, as she asserts from the outset, only Huntt’s story. It’s brave and beautiful, but also mean and apathetic.
Beba opens in select theaters June 24.
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