The following was written by Wes Eichenwald, special to the American-Statesman
If you’re a fan of movies that blur distinctions between fiction and reality, “The Teller and the Truth,” a Texas-centric mockumentary from director/writer and Austinite Andrew Shapter, is for you. And even if you’re not, this beautifully realized meditation on life and loss may end up winning you over.
The movie is based – although very loosely, it must be said – on some actual events that went down in Smithville, Texas, some four decades ago. In the film’s version of things, in December of 1974 a local bank is robbed. Two weeks later Francis Wetherbee, a beautiful young teller engaged to the bank’s president, disappears. Her car is soon found in a nearby river, but Francis herself has vanished. Do those two events have a connection? Years pass before someone starts to put two and two together.
Shapter – who went through much, including lengthy chemotherapy and radiation treatments for cancer, over a six-year journey to make the film – has produced an unusual cross between “The Blair Witch Project” and “Twin Peaks,” with a small-town Texas accent. Using amateur performers along with professional actors, Shapter gets the weirdness of everyday life down cold as he chases the story of what really happened to Francis and her possible lover/co-conspirator, Oliver Pearce, a Vietnam vet with a shady past who worked as a projectionist at the local movie theater, and who disappears at the same time as Francis.
Starting off in the style of a true-crime documentary/procedural examining a cold-case file, the film slowly shifts into something else entirely as it gets closer to the principals and their motives – whether real or imagined. Friends, coworkers and acquaintances of Francis and Oliver, along with an FBI agent and local law enforcement officials, all get their say. In its languid yet involving manner – helped along in no small degree by the ethereal tension of Carl Thiel’s score – “The Teller and the Truth” eventually comes to resemble the dreams and fantasies woven by people who have had someone close to them go missing, just vanished, and are left to wonder, for the remainder of their lives, what became of them. Eventually, we hear from Francis – or the dream of Francis – herself.
The story veers far afield from Texas before coming back to where it all began. In the end, it’s a love story – or more precisely, a story about love and loss of all kinds.
Factually speaking, don’t take any of it to the bank, as it were, but “The Teller and the Truth” has a lot to say about the fascination with people – especially young women – who go missing in, to quote the film, “the bloom of life.” Whether what it tells us is truth, fiction, wishful thinking, or a mixture of all three, “The Teller and the Truth” ends up raising more questions than it answers. That’s not a bad thing.
“The Teller and the Truth” had its premiere Sunday at the Austin Film Festival.