“While the film feels a bit too conventional, it’s a finely crafted reminder that in every seemingly ordinary town, there’s always something extraordinary to be found if you take the time to look.
by Ken Bakely
Rio Vista, California, located sixty miles northeast of San Francisco, is a tiny community of under ten thousand people. Like many of its equivalents across the United States, it’s peaceful and friendly, but many of the locals can feel a bit restrained at times. If you’re a kid in a small municipality like this, it can often feel like there’s nothing to do if you don’t want to play football. But Rio Vista has its own arts tradition which brings many residents together, and it comes from ninety-year-old Janey Callahan-Chin. For the past two decades, she has written, produced, and directed a full-length stage play every year, and in spite of what one might presume about a woman of her age, she is endlessly energetic and shows no signs of slowing down. Jared Callahan, her grandson, has chronicled the production of one of her plays in a documentary which is titled, appropriately enough, Janey Makes a Play. It’s a warm, cordial piece, about 81 minutes long. And while the film feels a little bit too conventional to really dig into some of the history and undercurrents that it toys with exploring, it’s a finely crafted reminder that in every seemingly ordinary town, there’s always something extraordinary to be found if you take the time to look.
Janey Makes a Play is at its best when Callahan keeps the camera on its titular action. The main thesis is remarkable – Janey maintains a calm demeanor even as hell week (the hectic final few days before the premiere of a theatrical production) exposes a number of issues which keep much of the cast and crew awake at night. Her nine decades of life experience have ensconced a truth that’s often hard to believe – everything works out in the end, even if not in the way we think it will be. The quaint, small town vibe which is explored through the creation of the play is where Callahan hits his stride. However, the focus of the movie is muddled somewhat when its scope is broadened, as Callahan apprehensively tries to explore the primary economic issues facing Rio Vista, a community hit hard by the recession. While he comes close to establishing a larger argument about the necessity of art and unity in the face of hardship, the movie’s inroads into this area seem dashed and unfinished. It pulls our attention away from the charming center of the documentary to an undoubtedly interesting but disappointingly unfinished set of bigger subjects, coming off as a teaser for another film which doesn’t exist.