CATEGORIES Documentary, SXSW, Theatrical Reviews, Festival Reports, Reviews, SXSW Film Festival, Cinematical
Would a sign for the "World's Largest Pecan" make you pull off the interstate on a road trip and check it out? It probably depends on your mood and the state of your bladder. You've probably seen the signs for these before, or maybe you grew up near one. The most famous of these are the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues in Minnesota, although there are several of those now, but there are dozens of other Largests scattered around the United States.
What peeved me the most about these things is finding out that they're all fake. Fiberglass and plaster doesn't make the World's Largest Strawberry. That's the World's Largest Fake Strawberry. But even more than that, it's the desperate hopes of a small town to bring visitors and hopefully dollars. City fathers and councilmen hoping that building a gigantic concrete trout will boost their tourism and economy. That's the heart of soul of what World's Largest is all about, which takes the film from whimsical and plants it in tragedy.
On surface value, World's Largest seems like it will be a fun little movie exploring the kitschy corners of the U.S., and showing us all of those roadside attractions that we've zoomed past a million times, but have never stopped to see. At first, that's exactly what this film is, featuring everyone from an enormous killer bee to a gigantic turkey. However, once the filmmakers peer behind the curtain of novelty, things quickly turn sad. One man talks about how they hope that building an enormous lava lamp in their town will stop the young kids from graduating and leaving town, like his own children did.
Most people speak fondly about the different enormous things in their respective towns, but none of them can quantify the impact those landmarks have had on their town. Some are in disrepair, some are targets for vandals, some have burned completely to the ground, only to get rebuilt again. It's clear that many people view them as a source of pride, some as a bit of an embarrassment, but the film turns much of its focus to Brent Blake, who is attempting to build a 65 foot tall lava lamp in the center of an intersection in Soap Lake, Washington.
It's easy to dismiss Blake as a crackpot, but the man has enough tenacity to make you believe that he might actually make this happen. Forget the fact that he's trying to raise money for a feasibility study to see if it's even possible to build the lamp, Blake makes you wonder if you're crazy for doubting in. With his black undertaker's suit and ponytail, he looks like a kooky hippie, but through sheer effort he's able to get Target to donate a 50 foot tall fake lava lamp that's being disassembled in Times Square and donate it to the town. Sadly, the lamp remains in storage at the sewage plant in town, but Blake is determined to see it erected one day.
But will it put Soap Lake back on the map (it was a health destination back in the day) as Blake claims? Sadly, that seems unlikely. One angry man confronts Blake about his plan, and tells him the money could be much better spent elsewhere, especially since Soap Lake is the poorest city for miles around. One elderly woman in a rocking chair sweetly says "I think it's ridiculous ... can I say that?" It's clearly the same thing that's on the mind of the audience. Is this guy insane for wanting to do this? Probably. Would you stop and see it if you were driving by? Maybe. Blake sure hopes so.
Directors Elizabeth Donius and Amy Elliott have constructed this film in a haphazard fashion, and that unfortunately comes through to the audience. Many times things feel slapped together, and you can frequently hear them asking questions of their subjects, which tends to break down the fourth wall and jar you. This was probably a great idea on paper, but there's no doubt they found themselves in need of a struggle, which is why the film revolves around Soap Lake.
There's no doubt that they meet some very colorful characters along the way, but the tenuous construction of the film isn't aided by the 4:3 aspect ratio or the video it was shot on. This might be very watchable on something like The Learning Channel or Discovery, but as a feature documentary I just wasn't as engaged as I wanted to be. However, it did make me think that I might stop at one of these the next time I'm on a road trip.