In the era of multipart docu-series, it’s nice to see a documentary film with multiple twists and turns and questions and theories all in a compact space of less than 100 minutes. From first-time feature filmmaker Zach Marion, Where She Lies (a title loaded with multiple meanings) concerns Peggy Phillips, who gave birth out of wedlock in Chattanogga, Tennessee circa 1962, after a married man sexually assaulted her. Her parents make it clear that if she wants to keep the baby (which she does), she could no longer live with them. After that baby girl’s birth, Peggy is told the child died, leaving Peggy heartbroken and her parents relieved. But on her death bed 33 years later, Peggy’s mother confesses that Peggy’s father arranged to have the baby adopted at birth and that she was, at the time, very much alive.
The case was fairly big news in Tennessee nearly 20 years ago, and director Marion explains that he stumbled upon it while doing research on another project. After exhuming the grave shortly after her mother’s death, as well as having the daughter (with a long criminal record) of a one-time neighbor come forward saying she was the the adopted child, Peggy had to give up on her search when she ran out of money in the mid-1990s. Recently, Marion offered to help her finally solve this mystery by getting the necessary tests, research and interviews done; in the process, the two became close friends. Where She Lies is not one of those docs where the filmmaker allows a certain amount of emotional distance between himself and his subject. Marion gets deeply involved and is on camera—either with his voice or physically—quite frequently, which is a practice I feel needs to be justified in order for me not to get annoyed by it. Thankfully, Marion is a calming force in his interactions with most people and is able to make a great deal of progress in this case.
As mentioned, this is a story that doesn’t progress in anything resembling a straight line. Some promising leads go nowhere or prove the opposite of what they thought would be discovered. Some of the personal testimony—most of it involving second-hand accounts of conversations—is not reliable. The 50-something-year-old, drug addict, ex-con “daughter” is probably the most colorful character in the film and shockingly also the least trustworthy. But what many of the interviews, especially those with friends and family, reveal about this portion of the population is that they often believe what their gut tells them rather than what facts and science do. As charming as that can be at times, it’s not only frustrating when dealing with a fact-finding mission, but it’s frustrating to think that this way of thinking has been steering the nation for the last four years.
I won’t reveal any of the big moments in Where She Lies, but nothing quite lands where I thought it would, and anytime a filmmaker can guide me through an unpredictable story, I’m on board. What filmmaker Marion may lack in a unique visual style, he more than makes up for with empathetic interviews and a real sense of taking care of his subjects to the point where it doesn’t feel like he’s simply squeezing them for information. I especially enjoy his behavior when he’s conversing with someone he doesn’t entirely believe. I wish I had that amount of patience sometimes. Early on, Peggy tells a childhood story of receiving the gift of a puzzle from her parents, one she cut to shreds with scissors to make the pieces come together, because she needed everything to fit. The metaphor is a bit on the nose, but I’ll allow it because Marion’s terrific storytelling carries the day.
The film will be available November 10 to purchase and rent on VOD.
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