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Way We Get By, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/15/09 12:00:00

"I adored every frame of this movie and every person in it."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2009 SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST FILM FESITVAL: The power of the moment, the raw emotional power of it, transcends politics, debates, borders, all of it. The moment is simple. It is honest, and it is human. It is a little boy, waiting at the terminal gate, holding a sign that reads “Welcome Home Daddy.”

Aron Gaudet’s touching, heartbreaking, inspiring, beautiful documentary “The Way We Get By” is not about the boy, who is seen only in one brief shot near the start of the film. The movie follows instead three seniors who fill their days and nights at the Bangor International Airport, determined to greet every veteran returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bangor is the first stop in (and the last stop out) for the troops - 750,000 of them since 2003, every single one of them counted - and these volunteers understand the importance of a handshake, a hug, a friendly face to a soldier who’s been away from home for far too long.

Every handshake is a selfless act of kindness that stirs the heart. The volunteers also offer snacks, conversation, free cell phone calls home. There’s something wonderful about seeing someone call a loved one for the first time in who knows how long - and that brings us back to the power of the boy and his sign. Think what you will about the military or the war they’re fighting, but it comes down to this: here are people who have been away too long. Homesickness and heartache and the joy of a loved one. Few things are as human as that.

The film is also about growing old, and that point where you wonder if you’ve made a difference. The three seniors here are searching for a purpose, and greeting the troops gives them that purpose. Consider a scene where Jerry Mundy, the 73-year-old former Marine, presents a coin given to him by a soldier heading to Iraq. The soldier asked Jerry to hold onto it until he returns. “But I won’t remember you,” Jerry honestly admitted to the young man. “I’ll remember you,” said the soldier. And so Jerry carries the coin with him everywhere, a reminder that somebody out there is thinking of him. Jerry might not admit it, but he needs something like that. His son died years ago. He seems to have no family, just his trusty dog, Mr. Flannigan.

86-year-old World War II vet Bill Knight is just as lonely, even more so. “I’ve outlived my usefulness,” Bill laments, admitting that troop greeting “puts a little meaning back in my life.” He’s knee-deep in credit card debt; his farmhouse, filled to the roof with a lifetime of packrat collections (his attic contains 25 vacuum cleaners), is eventually sold off, his possessions gone to auction, his pets, too many to count and too expensive to feed, given to the pound. He moves into a trailer park. Does he worry about dying alone?, an interviewer asks him. He begins to answer, then trails off into thought. Would any of us want to die alone?

Joan Gaudet, age 75, is the director’s mother (although Aron Gaudet wisely avoids making an appearance in the film, keeping the focus on his subjects, not himself; even the interviews are conducted instead by his producer, Gita Pullapilly). She’s there to greet the troops but hides when they have to deploy, never sure what to say in such a heartbreaking moment. She will eventually attend one deployment: that of her granddaughter, Amy, who will serve as a rescue pilot. Unlike Jerry and Bill, Joan has a large family to keep her together. Amy’s impending tour of duty fills Joan with dread.

Gaudet doesn’t force his themes upon the movie. They’re there in the corners, or when his trio of seniors decides to opine - thoughts on service, patriotism, family, having a place in the world - but the filmmaker lets these ideas come forth naturally. “The Way We Get By” is more successful at being inspiring than dozens of preachier efforts because it focuses wholly on the personal stories of its three subjects. We’ll bring our own views of the war into the film, but they won’t matter; we’re too swept up by the genuine kindness of three decent people. Gaudet does here what all documentaries should strive for: introducing us to real people, and making us care.

Consider one scene, late in the film. All it shows is Amy, donning her bulletproof vest, preparing to leave for her tour in Iraq. No words are said. None are needed. It’s a gut-wrenching moment because we know how Joan feels about Amy leaving, how she fears for her, how the very sight of Amy readying for battle would leave Joan in tears. (It left me in tears, too.)

How many films are this effective, that with so few words, the viewer can become heartbroken? Gaudet’s film is a marvel of humanity, celebrating life (and lamenting the end of it) through its little moments. Two soldiers make snow angels. Another pets a dog, the first one he’s seen in two years. Bill gets dressed in his old Navy uniform and attends a parade. Jerry buys candy for the troops. Joan hugs her family. “The Way We Get By,” indeed.

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