Anyone who’s had a relative in a nursing home or other elderly-care facility knows that the phrase “assisted living” can be misleading; one’s life is not being assisted – it’s often driven, at the cost of an individual’s independence. It is in this uncomfortably carceral setting that writer-director-producer Elliot Greenebaum created his independent tragicomedy “Assisted Living” (Economic Projections/Momodog).
“I think we all have a sense of being trapped in our lives,” Greenebaum said in a Hatchet interview. “Even you and me and your readers feel like, ‘How did I get stuck being me, rather than someone else or somewhere else?’ There’s a kind of disappointment in some way about who we are. So creating a character in a nursing home was a way of amplifying this sense we all have about how we’re disappointed with our lives or things never seeming quite right. We all have a desire to escape our situation and get to a better one.”
Greenebaum’s film follows pot-smoking janitor Todd (Michael Bonsignore) on his final day at work at a nondescript assisted living facility. He captures the strange relationship that burgeons between Todd and Mrs. Pearlman (the excellent Maggie Riley), a resident showing the first hints of Alzheimer’s. Shot on high-definition video in three real nursing homes, Greenebaum takes his audience into a small yet poignant story, the realism of which is partially due to the film’s production circumstances.
“It was shot in three different nursing homes and the extras were actual residents,” Greenebaum continued. “Most of the time we were in the assisted living section of the facilities, so the people were very active and very excited to be in the film. Those days were fun. There were only two days of shooting in places where people were bedridden. Those days were not fun to shoot, but usually it was this unusual collaboration between the crew and elderly people that were trying their hand at comedy. I found out that old people have a really good sense of humor and make good comics.”
“Assisted Living,” despite turning its audience’s gaze to the often uncomfortable topic of old age care, is by no means a polemic on Greenebaum’s part. “This film is not about nursing care, it’s not about America,” he said. “(Viewers) tend to tune it into whatever they’re interested in or what they want to think about. Obviously when you show people who are old and who are suffering from sickness or age, there’s an impulse to become angry at something or someone for that, but I don’t think there’s anyone to blame for the fact that animals get old.”
He continued, “My goal became more to think about how we personally navigate that journey and help others. The nursing home (setting) had nothing to do with that central issue of coming to terms with the fact that other people are real and that we can help them. The overall political/social/cultural situation of having an enormous number of old people in our country, almost all of whom need medical care, is external to the issues of this film. Really I just took pictures of the world. I just went in there and took pictures of things; some of them are happy, some of them aren’t, and people come away thinking what they will.”
Last year, “Assisted Living” won the Grand Jury Prize at the Slamdance Film Festival. It opens at Landmark E Street Cinema on Feb. 3.