Review: 'Protagonist' documents lives marked by traumatic childhoods

Back in the day, vocational horizons were defined by the old “doctor, lawyer, Indian chief.” Director Jessica Wu, in her documentary “Protagonist,” showcases more dramatic options including a bank robber and a terrorist.

The cast of characters include: Joe Loya, who found himself so excited by horrifying bank tellers he once held-up four branches in one day; a radical German leftist on the lam for twenty-five years; an internationally recognized evangelical minister who helps gays to overcome the temptations of homosexuality; and a marshal arts expert who in emulating the lead character of the “Kung Fu” television series has his brother shoot arrows at him to snatch from the air.

Initially the commonality between these individuals proves as elusive as the rationale for the behavior that brought them to our attention.

Through interviews the four recount traumatic childhoods marked by abuse or ostracism. Each, blind to the extreme nature of their reactions, chose a path that while empowering proves shortsighted and foolish.

Hans-Joachim Klein, living in post WWII Germany, lost his mother at a young age to suicide. He seems uncertain about the exact circumstances under which this happened. However, a couple of salient facts emerge, explaining his commitment to radical politics during the Vietnam war: his mother’s Jewish heritage and her stay ina concentration camp combined with his father’s ultra conservative attitudes and admiration of Hitler. Both his dad and step-mother beat him for the slightest misstep.

The aforementioned Loya grew up in Texas. He belonged to only the Mexican family in a gringo church where his father was a respected elder. Joe remembers a joyful childhood up to the age of seven when his mother suffers an untimely death from kidney disease. His father, in grief and anger, began to beat his two sons, the attacks growing in frequency and intensity over the years. When Loya finally responded, stabbing his father in self-defense, it set lose a rage that was intoxicating as the trauma he suffered was horrific.

Mark Pierpont, the product of a strict religious upbringing, was singled out early as being different. Before he even had the inclination to commit any significant transgression, he was labeled as the black sheep of the family, his effeminate nature, at least in the early stages, more obvious to others than himself. Eventually finding himself attracted to men, he undertook to defeat and exorcise these deviant thoughts through the most dramatic of efforts. His tenacity and sincerity of effort proved enough to make him someone he was not as he traveled the globe speaking on how, with the help of God, he conquered his homosexuality, encouraging others to do the same.

Mark Salzman, small in stature, was the classic undersized male that attracts bullies. His answer was to prepare himself physically to defend himself against all comers. Only the torturous training by his teacher surpassed the brutality of his self-imposed practice regiment.

Director Yu compiled these profiles looking to revisit the tragedies of Euripides, the Greek playwright. Her intent was to illustrate the timelessness of the writer’s philosophy through its relevance to contemporary life.

Dividing the movie into chapters with names such as Provocation. Opportunity, Certainty and Threshold, Yu marks her protagonists' journeys in the context of Euripides’s works.

To further add context she intermittently employs small wooden puppets dressed as sixth century Greeks to portray dramatic scenes while her subjects describe them.

These devices, intended to bind the stories through the original idea that gave birth to the documentary, have the feeling of an afterthought rather than the bedrock on which the script is built.

When preparing for “Protagonist,” Yu missed the clue to the real commonality of theme. She could only find a few women’s stories that fit the mold closely enough to be included in the 200 considered, none of which made the final cut.

This is a story about men.

Yu’s protagonists, having suffered insult to image and body, their initial enemy in the past, proceed as if redressing a grievance, preparing to take on an adversary, real or imagined, at times becoming their own opponent.

This potent and timely phenomenon, if examined in place of the puppets and the wisdom of Euripides, makes a more compelling story because it is the story.

Her tales of family dysfunction gone wild start out slowly, gradually developing into something of substance and occasionally fascination — it takes time and faith to reap the benefits.

Yu refuses to pander to the need for instant gratification from audiences possessing a hunger whet by television producers who feed them front-loaded scripts designed to keep them from hitting the remote control.

Absent the theatrics of Michael Moore, Al Gore’s melting polar ice, or a sentimental saga of Penguins, what must a documentary do to make us leave the house and pay $10 a head, pre-popcorn?

Whatever it is, “Protagonist,” a decent, but not exceptional piece, fails to rise to that elusive standard.

The key to making a documentary lies in the negotiation of what one’s imagined and what they’ve found. Yu never resolves the issue.

Grade: C

Lester Gray reviews movies for Read all of Examiner's movie reviews.

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