Look, the good people of Monrovia, Indiana, wouldn't show up to see a quiet, observational movie about your life. But thanks to your curiosity, decency and cosmopolitanism, you might have interest in and access to watching Frederick Wiseman’s film about theirs. Monrovia, Indiana won’t tell you much you wouldn’t have guessed already. This farm town is quiet, home to folks of an aging population who gab at the cafe about their physical therapy, and a planning commission eager to find any excuse it can to stop builders from adding 150 new homes to a subdivision. (Monrovia’s population is currently right around 1,000 people, mostly white.)
The granaries and silos still do some business, and the hog farm is horizon-wide, its pens as dense with squealing swine as the ball pit at a McDonald’s playground is with well-germed plastic. Ever patient and always attentive to local history, Wiseman plants his camera in a high school classroom while a coach regales sleepy teens with the legacy of Monrovia basketball. As in many of his films, this dedicated documenter of civic life proves boundlessly curious, capturing in film the drift of the everyday, whether that everyday is interesting or not.
Usually, in Wiseman films, it is interesting, and that’s often the case here. We witness a funeral, a touch-and-go school band concert, a grisly operation at a vet’s office, the gaudy stillness of a rural grocery store, a civic board running through a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of meetings, an all-ages aerobics class and the crushing bore that is a Freemason ceremony. That last scene starts promisingly, with one high muckety-muck of a Mason intoning from a lectern about the estimable traits of a Mason they’ve assembled to honor. But Wiseman’s cameras expose the drab emptiness of the event, with the big cheese stumbling through a reading of boilerplate encomium. Freemasonry, it turns out, is about as mysterious as an office retirement party.
Wiseman’s eye is attuned, once again, to organizational decision-making. The film’s most arresting, revealing passages — the only scenes where anyone disagrees with anyone else about anything at all — concern the town council. In one, the council considers whether to approve a landowner’s request to build a second entrance to a subdivision, an apparently reasonable addition that would defer much traffic away from a four-way stop sign. But some members fear this will be just another step toward the subdivision’s inevitable expansion — and, in one member’s vague phrase, “demographic change.” No one presses him on what that means, though another councilmember insists that the police are already called out to that subdivision almost once a day. Wiseman lets his scenes run long, an especially effective tact here, as his white Midwestern subjects are loath to speak out loud the verboten thoughts they might really be thinking — of what they fear might be changing.
Those fears aren’t ever explicated in the film, and viewers will likely find themselves filling in the blanks based on their own assumptions and experiences. I’m from small-town Kansas, and the council certainly sounded to me like it’s trying to limit the arrival of minorities into the community. Wiseman doesn’t engage with immigration or migrant labor in his town portrait, and we never learn who, exactly, is working at that hog farm or who the cops may be dealing with in those new houses. By the same token, there are no proud Trumpists on display here, and no effort to plumb the heart of white grievance and white fear. All this makes Monrovia, Indiana a stubborn entry into the Wiseman canon. Many of his subjects are invested in the continuity of what they perceive of as a timeless American normalcy, but they’re too polite — and cagey — to acknowledge this on camera. Wiseman’s technique does not allow for questioning anyone, and so he shows us, in those board meetings, a polite caginess so subtle that viewers might not recognize it as the cloak behind which Midwesterners hide so much: It looks like niceness.