Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2015 Austin Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit austinfilmfestival.com and follow AFF on Twitter at @austinfilmfest.
I remember going on school field trips to my local science museum. We would run around, messing with the exhibits, watching presentations where electricity sent our hair on end, and spending far too much money on “astronaut ice cream.” One of the staples of these field trips was the chance to see an IMAX movie, something my parents would rarely ever splurge on, because the ticket price to the museum alone wasn’t already enough.
It was a time before high definition televisions or Blu-rays of Planet Earth. So for 45-minutes, a crowd of fidgety 10-year-olds would sit in quiet wonder of oceans and rivers, mountains and trees, or whatever other beautiful and grandiose nature-scape the museum was showing off that month. As wonderful as they were to look at, I cannot tell you what a single one of them was actually about. Those IMAX films were all about the wonder and beauty of nature, being an actually engaging film wasn’t really on the agenda. As I sat and watched Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia I felt ten again, but this time I was also given something to care about.
…what Aikman does on screen and with Lowe himself makes the things being said superfluous.
The film comes bearing the gifts that you would expect from a profile documentary. As a depiction of Jeff Lowe’s life and career it is more than adequate, although somewhat expected. There are the shots and tales of childhood that gradually transition into his blossoming athleticism. You are given the fond reminiscence by a cavalcade of Jeff’s friends. They marvel at just how talented he was, how he “changed the game,” and was a “trailblazer in his field.” Of course he was great, we probably wouldn’t be talking about him if he wasn’t. It’s not that this approach is boring or unable to captivate, it’s just that it feels so routine, which is especially odd when considering the subject.
But then director Jim Aikman starts taking some chances. As we reach the point in the tale of Jeff Lowe’s titular metanoia, Aikman shakes off the shackles of documentary expected. Rather than relying only on Jeff or his written words to describe just what this revelatory moment meant or even felt like, he takes a risk at trying to show the viewer. It’s the type of move that could only be done cinematically and Aikman pulls it off spectacularly. The words and narration are there to accompany it, but what Aikman does on screen and with Lowe himself makes the things being said superfluous. We get it. We feel it. This is the moment that changed Jeff and for the film, it is the moment that made it something worth remembering.
Through this transcendent moment of metanoia, Aikman seamlessly transitions into the struggles and accomplishments of Lowe’s back nine. It is a life of fewer picturesque landscapes and hardships of an entirely different variety, but in many ways it is when Lowe becomes a fuller person. We can sit and wonder at the accomplishments of Lowe, the many peaks he conquered, his impact on an emerging sport, but it is the way he takes back what climbing was depriving him of and how he overcomes the challenges that family and sickness throw his way. He isn’t just some trailblazing climber, he’s a human, and sometimes that can be challenge enough.
Without Lowe in all his incarnations, perhaps most especially the Lowe of today, the film would be so much lesser.
Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia shares at least some of the same DNA of this year’s earlier documentary on the birth of base jumping, Sunshine Superman. The two center upon a man that by all appearances was just like you or I, but took the path of adventure and discovery. They both feature fantastic visuals that you sit and wonder at, attempting to chew up every last morsel of beauty. The editing in both is fascinatingly tight especially when considering the mounds of archival footage the filmmakers had at their disposal. However, Sunshine Superman has trouble filling the void left by Carl Boenish’s passing. Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia is more fortunate in having its subject on hand to raise the material higher. Lowe is not only the subject of the film, he is its heart and soul. Without Lowe in all his incarnations, perhaps most especially the Lowe of today, the film would be so much lesser.
It should come as no surprise that front-to-back, Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia is a delight to look at. The cinematography is breathtaking and its coupling with the fascinating story of Lowe’s life make for a thoroughly entertaining film. It is the type of film that you expect to wow your eyes and make you want to do more. Most impressively is how director Jim Aikman develops the film into more than the typical profile documentary. Using the full capabilities of the medium, he sidesteps mediocrity by making Lowe’s life of the present play just as an important of a role as his life of the past. Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia is the type of documentary that captivates your eyes and ears in the most expected of ways but wins over your heart in one that is far more surprising. Rather than being a film built only on the past, it stresses the need for awareness in the present and future. Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia has the visuals of a museum IMAX film and the heart that was so often missing.
Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia has the visuals of a museum IMAX film and the heart that was so often missing.