Early in the documentary “Rewind,” we learn that director Sasha Joseph Neulinger’s father, Henry Nevison, has an extensive collection of other people’s home movies – shelves stacked with film canisters that show strangers mugging for the camera, acting silly and doing their best to look very happy.
And then the film turns to Neulinger’s own home movies, and shows us the lies and the horror that can lie beneath those forced smiles and that awkward jollity.
The secrets that emerge, not so much in those home movies as in the recollections of the people in them, are the dark history of a family wracked, and wrecked, by generations of sexual abuse. Make no mistake, “Rewind” is hard to watch. It might also be essential.
The film, which premiered at Tribeca last year and is screening on demand on Friday, May 8 and on PBS’ Independent Lens on Monday, May 11, is a wrenching but necessary directorial debut for Neulinger, an occasional actor whose most high-profile role was as the young Jack Black in “Shallow Hal.” “Rewind” was assembled, he says in the film, out of “a puzzle made from my life, and I feel like I have to put that puzzle back together if I’m ever really going to move on.”
The puzzle was documented from birth, because Sasha’s father was late for that event because he was out buying a video camera. From the looks of things, and judging by the complaints of his wife, Jacqui, he rarely put the camera down for the next decade or so. “I felt like I lost my husband,” Jacqui says. “My husband disappeared into that lens.”
What he documented is ordinary enough at first: Sasha seems to be a bright, inquisitive kid in the earliest footage, and then suddenly the brightness disappears and he’s wounded, angry and volatile, yelling into the camera and everyone around him.
Because we know something is wrong early in the film, we’re naturally suspicious of every new person who’s introduced via home videos: Uncle Larry, who’s Sasha’s godfather and has a naturally sleazy look about him; Uncle Howard, a budding opera star with a beautiful voice and a sinister presence; Cousin Stewart, Larry’s son, with an air of menace that seemingly clings to him; and even Sasha’s father, Henry, who’s always hiding behind the camera and who became the prime suspect when the family first notified the authorities that Sasha had been abused.
From there the revelations come quietly, and they don’t stop. By the time Sasha was 7, he and his younger sister, Bekah, had been subject to years of abuse by multiple family members (not including Henry), with a history of abuse coursing through the family and leaving only more questions about how far back it went.
Neulinger doesn’t waste much time before he starts revealing these details; this is not a “who done it?” but a “how do you get past it?” And that proves to be extraordinarily difficult – especially given the time (the mid-1990s), when child victims of abuse were forced to repeat their stories over and over to police, social workers and lawyers to have any chance of seeing justice.
You could say that justice is done to a small degree in “Rewind,” at least to the point where Sasha gets past the self-loathing, fear and anger that consumed him during the years of abuse. But the worst abuser gets the least punishment – and Sasha, while still a child, pointedly chooses to drop the last name Nevinson, so that he won’t share a name with his abusers, and take Neulinger, the name of his loving great-grandfather.
This is a devasting story, and everyone in the film is nearly destroyed by it – Sasha by years of suicidal thoughts, his father by enormous guilt over not protecting his children, his mother by the knowledge of what happened in her house. It is told quietly but unflinchingly, with a suggestion of healing: The film tells us that Sasha’s case inspired the creation of a child advocacy center, Mission Kids, and the passage of new laws that protect young abuse victims and make it easier for them to tell their stories.
That, at least, is satisfying. But in this time of pandemic, when we’re told that reports of domestic abuse have fallen dramatically, probably because the victims can’t get away from their abusers, it is hard to find much satisfaction in stories like these, however bravely and sensitively they’re told.
You’ll walk away from “Rewind” shaken by the story, and haunted by the face of a little boy with a world of hurt and nowhere to run.
“Rewind” is available on demand May 8.