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‘A Bread Factory’ Film Review: Small-Town Theater Struggles to Survive in Two-Part Ode to the Arts

Over two films and four hours, ”In the Family“ director Patrick Wang brings a matrix of searching souls to memorable life

There’s nothing else out there like Patrick Wang’s two-part, four-hour labor of love, “A Bread Factory,” and that’s wholly a good thing.

A lovably oddball, ticklish and moving tapestry about the struggle to save a beleaguered community arts center, its specialness derives not from a mercenary thirst to ignore convention, but rather a desire to refract humanity with passion and delight. Through bursts of comedy, poignancy, conflict, song, dance, and theatrical whimsy, what emerges is akin to a homespun symphony of soulfulness.

Seven years ago, Wang unveiled an astonishing debut, “In the Family,” itself an intimate opus (at three hours) of profound understanding, about a gay man’s fraught custody battle with his deceased partner’s prejudiced relatives. Embedded with moral clarity and carefully turned psychological tension, it came seemingly out of nowhere and heralded an emotionally astute new filmic talent. That it’s still little-seen seems wrong, like a beautiful garden still hidden to most of the world.

“A Bread Factory,” filmed in 16mm and unabashedly micro-budgeted, isn’t his follow-up; that would be “The Grief of Others,” a 2015 feature only now getting released. But in its sneaky ambition, intelligence, heart, and frisky charm, “Factory” signifies that Wang is boldly confident about what movies can do. And one of them is to stitch together an ensemble of compassionately rooted characters so they can reveal their most fervidly held beliefs and fears, in order to be tested and prodded, maybe backed up, possibly teased, and sometimes generously left alone.

Out front in Wang’s scenario are stage director Dorothea (Tyne Daly) and veteran actress Greta (Elisabeth Henry), both a couple and a couple of arts advocates now 40 years into a journey that transformed their small town’s disused bread factory into a cultural haven and civic hub where theater, dance, film, and opera are celebrated, and where children’s programs flourish. (Their capable projectionist is a 12-year-old cineaste.) But as the duo prep a production of Euripides’ “Hecuba,” they learn that their town’s administrative board plans to reallocate their school funding to a flashy pair of commercially savvy Chinese-via-Hollywood performance artists (Janet Hsieh, George Young) named May Ray, who are opening a shiny new space.

While straight-talking Dorothea and even-tempered Greta work to turn votes in their favor, we simultaneously meet a constellation of all-ages townspeople. Their interconnectedness, outside of their ties to The Bread Factory, speaks to the rollercoaster of hope and despair that is being an engaged citizen during turbulent times for the cause of art and truth over money and might. The reserved, bespectacled “Hecuba” translator is married to an impassioned teacher (James Marsters), but he’s having an affair with a Factory-supportive board member (Nan-Lyn Nelson, “Jack of the Red Hearts”), whose aspiring-actor daughter is the girlfriend of an eager young man (Zachary Sayle, “In the Family”) learning the ropes of honest, skeptical journalism from the local paper’s fiery editor (1970s icon Glynnis O’Connor, giving a radiant, where-have-you-been-all-these-years performance).

That’s just one character strand. There’s also a kindly opera singer, a veteran actor in a permanent feud with a similarly seasoned critic, a dumb-hunk movie star whose appearance hypnotizes the town, and a friendly waitress (Jessica Pimentel, “Orange Is the New Black”) who Dorothea and Greta convince to play a key role in their “Hecuba.”

Part 1, subtitled “For the Sake of Gold,” and which also features a bitingly funny Janeane Garofalo as a brusque and exasperated filmmaker, builds to an extended board-vote climax suggestive of old-school underdog melodrama, yet kept to a comically quirky slow-burn. Part 2, however, called “Walk With Me a While,” reaches for the sublimely weird (a mini-epidemic of singing and dancing strikes new visitors to town) as well as a thick-set melancholy about the fate of The Factory, culminating in an extended sequence of the performed “Hecuba” that brings the tragic play’s themes of corrupted stewardship and grief into stark relief with the arts center’s plight. Is it the best rendering of “Hecuba” you’ll ever see? No. Does it need to be for Wang to convey what art means to those who make it, and who send it out into the world? Hell no.

Wang’s presentational directing style takes acclimation: long takes, minimal cutting, occasionally aware camera movement. What’s most human about “A Bread Factory,” in fact, is its ever-noticeable consciousness, a feeling that life is rehearsal and reality simultaneously, an awkward and grace-filled search for meaning. You can almost sense Wang off-camera, like a smiling experimenter, happier with truth than effortlessness. Not everything works, but Dorothea and Greta would surely tell you that over four decades of running a modest, open-doors arts center, that’s hardly the point when putting yourself out there for what matters.

To be honest, it’s still something of a formal mystery how Wang got me to tears by his communal final image, my consciousness shot through with gratitude for however I first fell in love with the arts. But he pulled it off, and if there’s any justice to our big-tent indie landscape, a place will always exist for his special brand of wisdom, sensitivity and sincere expression.