Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

In Inyo County, California, there is a tiny outpost, formerly a flourishing (if lawless) mining community, called Darwin – and although the name derives from its 19th century founder Dr Erasmus Darwin French, Nick Brandestini's eponymous feature might just as well be referring to the more famous English evolutionary scientist.

For this godforsaken community, nestled in the inhospitable Death Valley near the top secret China Lake Naval Weapons Station and the burnt remnants of the Barker Ranch - where Charles Manson was arrested - boasts a population of just 35 inhabitants, and is a place where, despite there being no jobs, no organised religion, no government and little water, life somehow persists in a defiant, if doomed, demonstration of the very principles of Darwinism.

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Brandestini's documentary offers a slice of smalltown life in extremis, tracing all the evolutionary tropes of survival through variation and adaptation, while dramatising a populace that either is abandoned by, or just plain outlives, the next generation. So, while several of Darwin's denizens are burying weapons caches, hording food supplies and tending a 'garden of survival' in preparation for the coming apocalypse, projected by postmistress Susan Pimentel for May 2012, really it is the community's own end that seems more inevitable, and more imminent. As Shirley Steele, owner of the shabby-looking garden, puts it: "Like the Bible says, protect the children and the children will be the future – but we ain't got no children out here."

And yet this alien landscape, shot wide by the Swiss filmmaker with an outsider's eye for the dustily hyperreal, is teeming with strange life and even stranger stories. Take Monty Brannigan, who worked in Darwin's mines from the Fifties until their closure in 1977. His first wife, ironically named Lucky, accidentally shot off one of her own fingers while drunkenly giving a guy "a haircut with a bullet", and was later killed in a fight with another woman. The impressively moustachioed Monty has since happily remarried (to Nancy), and reinvented himself as Darwin's unofficial firefighter and artist in residence. In fact, Monty is just one of Darwin's "wasted talents", along with 'rock artist' Jay Donnelly, writer Kathy Voss -who fled to Darwin's quieter life after her roommate was murdered in San Francisco - and Kathy's husband the 'boogie woogie man' Dell Heter.

Other interviewees include ex-con Hank Jones and his fifth wife Connie, who run Darwin's "first and only library" from a trailer and give ill-attended historical tours of the region. Hank is a man's man with a criminally violent past who has grown to accept Ryal Steele, Connie's transgendered daughter from a previous marriage, as not just his stepdaughter but 'my son' - while Connie herself, once a devout Christian fundamentalist, converted to Paganism when searching online for an appropriate gift for Ryal's wicca-focussed girlfriend Penny Hagan.

It is, one suspects, this very attitude of open-minded adaptability that has for so long served the Darwin community, where, as Hank puts it: "They accept you for what you are today." Tellingly, though, Ryal and Penny, who are Darwin's youngest residents, are now moving out and on – while the town's only growing constituency inhabits the cemetery. "I'm gonna end up just like 'em", declares Monty near the film's close, "six feet under the ground."

It is where we all end – which is what gives this engaging paean to the outer frontiers of Americana its universal edge.

Reviewed on: 17 Oct 2011
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Evocative documentary about a ghost town in Death Valley, California, with a scant population of just 35.
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Director: Nick Brandestini

Writer: Taylor Segrest

Starring: Monty Brannigan, Nancy Brannigan, Ryal Steele, Hank Jones, Connie Jones, Penny Hagan, Susan Pimentel, Shirley Steele, Myriam LeMarchand, Kathy Goss, Michael Laemmle, Dell Heter

Year: 2011

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: Switzerland, US


London 2011

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