Finding Vivian Maier (2013) / Documentary

MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG for some thematic material and mild language
Running Time: 83 min.

Cast: John Maloof, Vivian Maier
Small appearance: Phil Donahue, Tim Roth
Director: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel
Screenplay: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel

Review published May 23, 2014

A fairly unique documentary in that it researches a person of no perceivable consequence only to unearth a great artist in disguise, Finding Vivian Maier examines real estate agent (and now documentarian, along with Charlie Siskel ("Tosh.0") John Maloof's quest to discover just who the person is that shot so many unbelievably gorgeous film negatives that he obtained sight unseen at an storage locker auction in 2007.  Maloof would be so taken by the photographs he viewed that he would go on to try to purchase all of the other items belonging to Maier bought in the auction by others, and began to sleuth just who this unknown person was and what drove her to create such wonderful works -- works that she mostly had never shown to the public (or anyone else) in her lifetime.

Vivian Maier was born in 1926 and would spend the 83 years or so in obscurity, primarily working as a nanny for a variety of different families over the course of her lifetime.  All the while, Maier took photographs with her Rolleiflex -- and a lot of them -- while out and about with the kids in Chicago, and in her own personal travels.

Maloof would generate buzz for Maier after he posted a collection of her most stunning photographs online, most of them shot in the 1950s and 1960s depicting the urban life of people she would encounter, both the comic and the tragic.  In addition to the negatives and undeveloped rolls of film, Maloof also secured some of her own audio recordings, home movie reels, and receipts which not only gave him some insight as to her voice, mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, but also put him into contact with some of the people she had nannied for in the past.  She was known to be quite the packrat, so there were plenty of details to go on, even if many of them were confusing or inconsistent.

From there, Maloof and company traveled to various locations around the world in order to find those who may have met the reclusive artist and ascertain just what makes her tick.  It's as much a posthumous psychological study of a life unobserved as it is a portrait of an artist's work.

The film starts off light and amusing, and indeed its first half is quite the bit of entertainment, as we not only look at a great deal of Maier's stunning work, but also are engaged with how this wonderful photographer could slip so easily underneath everyone's radar, to the point where all of her life's work might have gone by without discovery at all.  The second half isn't as absorbing, as it concentrates more on Maier as a person, as a nanny, and as a lonely recluse with tell-tale signs of mental illness, which is much sadder and far more speculative.  But necessary, even though Maloof and Siskel seem far more assured when they're able to direct with mirthful exuberance than when they strive for emotional pathos. 

Nevertheless, it does stick with you once it is all said and done, and gives the discoverer of lost treasure a mission in his life that was never a part of the artist's, and that is to ensure that the life's work that ended up in his care gets the recognition and respect it deserves.  Given the top-notch quality of their own film, Maloof and Siskel may have found their own second calling in life as historical documentarians, as Finding Vivian Maier emerges as one of the year's funniest, most moving, and best of its class. Luckily for us, they've chosen to share their talent with the rest of us.

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo