Documentary blends so seamlessly with fictional storytelling at some points in “Assisted Living,” Elliot Greenebaum’s engagingly loose-limbed tale of a good-natured but irresponsible attendant in a Kentucky nursing home who develops a real concern for one of the patients, that you’ll find it difficult to discern which is which. The small-scaled independent film was shot in an actual facility with the actors sharing the screen with real residents and staff members, and the result is a disarming sense of verisimilitude. It also says a good deal about American attitudes toward aging and mental deterioration, for the most part subtly rather than in the usual sledgehammer approach. The easygoing pacing does, to be sure, sometimes come across as dilatory and messy, and in the last act the sensitivity morphs into something uncomfortably close to sentimentality. But for the most part the picture is artfully made and affecting.
When we’re introduced to Todd (Michael Bonsignore), he’s presented as an agreeable slacker, rousing himself sluggishly from bed to get to his job at the nursing home late yet again–something the chief administrator will berate him for, once he can extricate himself from the series of phone conversations about a troublesome son we never see. Todd’s a nice enough fellow, whose grubby charm ingratiates him to much of the staff and a lot of the residents, but he can turn a mite surly too, and he has a habit of taking advantages wherever he can–going off to smoke some pot, sneaking patients on unapproved jaunts outside, or making prank calls to them supposedly from relatives in heaven. His attention is gradually focused, however, when he’s assigned to see to the needs of Mrs. Pearlman (Maggie Riley), an Alzheimer’s patient who’s slipping into dementia, mistaking him for her son–whether real or imaginary is never made clear–who’s moved to Australia and rarely, if ever, calls. Todd tries to keep a professional detachment from the woman, but as the day progresses and she deteriorates, finds that increasingly difficult; and in the end he violates the rules in a way that will make it impossible for him to continue working at the home. The outcome, nonetheless, is less downbeat than it sounds, since it’s clear that through the experience the young man has gained at least some sympathetic understanding of the kind of difficulties his former charges face and an appreciation of the way in which they deserve to be treated.
The most interesting and effective portion of “Assisted Living,” frankly, comprises the early reels, when the picture most successfully balances the fictional and non-fictional elements in a jerky, semi-chaotic collage with overtones of cinema verite, sometimes even swerving into direct-interview passages (as when members of the staff are asked–later, it would appear–concerning Todd’s attributes as an employee). As it progresses, however, the film focuses increasingly on the relationship between Todd and Mrs. Pearlman, and though that story is certainly touching and sporadically insightful, it takes things into more conventional territory, and some of the sense of authenticity dissipates. That’s not the fault of either Bonsignore or Riley, both of whom are excellent, though in very different ways–he looser and more spontaneous, she more controlled and restrained. Nor should Greenebaum be blamed for imposing a narrative arc on his film. But the fact remains that as “Assisted Living” becomes more structured, it seems less true.
Still, this brief (77 minutes), technically modest picture says more about aging in America, and the ways in which younger people avoid confronting the actualities of death and dying, than all the sweet but false fables Hollywood has manufactured about the elderly. It’s worth seeking out.