The observational documentary meets the observer effect in Almost There, as filmmakers chronicle how their solitary subject is changed by their scrutiny. While shooting the Pierogi Fest in Whiting, Indiana, co-directors Aaron Wickenden and Dan Rybicky discover outsider artist Peter Anton drawing portraits. The initial encounter encapsulates Anton’s personality: assertive obsessive who encourages attention but bristles at its demands; guileless elderly man who displays a rapport with children; frail and baffled figure who compels strangers to help him.
Wickenden and Rybicky decide to come to his aid after visiting Anton’s derelict house in East Chicago, where he lives in a mold-encrusted basement stuffed with artwork and the scrapbooks that serve as his autobiography (titled Almost There). He seems on the verge of being buried alive by the collapsing structure and the weight of his unfulfilled ambitions. The filmmakers arrange for a collaborative gallery show, but this career breakthrough is marred by the revelation of the criminal conviction that transformed Anton from gregarious talent scout into shunned recluse.
In their first documentary, Wickenden and Rybicky explore their knotty entanglement with Anton, examining questions of exploitation and responsibility. After guiding his fate, the filmmakers step back and dispassionately capture a series of frustrated caregivers passing the baton, each nudging Anton toward a new life. This decision makes Almost There a richer, more compassionate portrait. Anton’s need for recognition is viewed in the context of ambition and obligation, resolve and avoidance, forces that determine how big dreams fit into small lives.