Finders Keepers Dir. Bryan Carberry, J. Clay Tweel

[The Orchard; 2015]

Styles: documentary
Others: Whole, The Sessions, Crazy Love, My Left Foot

I’m writing this on the roasting-hot first day of fall in L.A., and it’s interesting how they say there are no seasons here; we totally have seasons but they have their own unique character which doesn’t follow the iconography of seasons on the East Coast. Even we Angelenos identify seasons by signifiers we’ve seen in the movies; we’re like the non-white girl that can’t recognize her own beauty because it isn’t mirrored back at her by the media.

All that to say, if you’ll forgive the tangential analogy, that Finders Keepers draws you in with its high-as-drugs concept, but its underlying theme is how class distinctions manifest in America, as subtle and as real as the seasons in L.A.

The core of the film is a clanging metaphor — a working class wheeler dealer, Shannon Whisnant, buys a BBQ grill at a sale of abandoned items at a storage facility, and inside of it he finds an embalmed leg, severed below the knee, that belonged to a certain John Wood. Shannon sees the leg as a potential side-show moneymaker and a path to personal fame, and refuses to return it to John, a local man from a wealthy family who has fallen into drug addiction. Twenty first century North Carolina is a million miles from Downton Abbey in outward appearance, but destiny pulls the film’s two, similar, main characters along intersecting, twisted roads and ultimately in opposite directions, back toward the social status they come from.

Storywise, Finders Keepers charges out of the gate as a “Who Will Get The Foot?” nail-biter and clownish courtroom drama, but as the film progresses it becomes much more about its larger-than-North-Carolina characters. There’s inevitably a certain imbalance between the two men’s stories: the filmmakers have to piece together the tumultuous years of a now-recovered John through interviews with his sister’s clucking and head-shaking family, whereas a good chunk of Shannon’s story is captured in real time. Shannon’s the tragic hero of the piece, flailing wildly in his effort to hold onto his hopes and dreams, embodied in the embalmed foot of the local rich boy. He’s an arrogant, charming, and childlike blob, his head plopped on at a 45-degree angle, with pretty hair and crystal-blue eyes that look up at the sky and down his nose at the world. He has an instinct for buying low and selling high, and an ambition to get famous, “making people laugh.” The memory of a bank of photographers clamoring for his picture after his appearance on The People’s Court actually brings him to tears.

John, on the other hand, is the boy who can never come close to his super successful dad’s expectations, dropping out of the military and becoming a drug addict. In a dark and poetic twist of fate, he has to have his leg amputated in the aftermath of the plane crash that kills his father. In true Southern Gothic style, he gets the leg back from the hospital and makes an unskilled effort to preserve it, losing it when he ignores the bills for his storage unit.

John speaks in the same hillbilly accent as Shannon, but there’s always a sense that he’s the black sheep of a genteel family that cares about him and on some level enjoys him as a scapegoat and an object of gossip (his niece April at one point emotes, rather hilariously, “I felt like I didn’t even HAVE an uncle!”) — a family that will be there for him if he stops short of total self-destruction. John’s mom is a particularly fascinating character: smart, cutting, emotionally withholding, judgmental and totally unapologetic.

Shannon, on the other hand, gets drawn into a compulsive pursuit of fame. His great fortune is having married his wife Lisa, a patient and loving companion and all-around lovely person, but he’s determined to parlay his time in the public eye as “The Foot Man” into some kind of career, and as he suffers the indignities of reality TV, his relationship starts to disintegrate.

For all of Shannon’s determination and John’s reckless negligence, both men seem to be prevented by fate from escaping the social conditions they were born to. Finders Keepers is a story that gets your imagination going, resonating on a lot of levels; it illustrates how getting stuck in their will, refusing to surrender to the natural course of events, drives the two men into a macabre theater of the absurd.

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