It can take a lifetime to find the missing piece...
At the first glimpse of 74-year-old Peggy Phillips in Zach Marion's heartfelt, inspiring documentary Where She Lies, it feels as if we're face-to-face with a woman who's lived her life wearing the kind of trauma that doesn't just happen but actually comes to define us.
We don't know her story. Yet. We will, of course.
She tells a story early in the film, currently screening as an official selection at Lake County Film Festival, that proves more important than we realize it's going to be not just for us as moviegoers but also for Peggy.
You'll either like Peggy or you won't. You'll likely either feel for her or that lifetime of woundedness will grate at your nerves and you'll find yourself wanting to look away.
Personally? I was drawn to Peggy right away. I was drawn to the story beyond the story. I was drawn to something that it felt like was lying underneath her skin and bones. She was wearing it, but it wasn't clothing and I'm not sure she could remove it if she tried.
Where She Lies tells a dizzying story really, the kind of story you don't necessarily believe because it has so many variables and moving parts that it seems like it couldn't possibly be true. Trauma has a way of doing that though, making us not believe the unbelievable truths and leading us to cast our doubts instead of believing our survivors.
There are a myriad of ways that Where She Lies could have gone wrong, yet it never does. Filmmaker Zach Marion is both a precise, disciplined filmmaker and an inherently compassionate soul - both traits come in handy in producing this film that demanded both traits in abundance. More often than not, a filmmaker becoming part of the story is a cinematic recipe for disaster yet Marion makes it work here and, in fact, I'd dare say the film couldn't have worked without it. The story is not Marion's, of course, but he's an essential component in the world this film creates.
Peggy was 19-years-old, a Chattanooga, Tennessee teenager on the cusp of adulthood when she was sexually assaulted with a pregnancy amplifying the trauma that followed. Her father wanted her to give up the baby for adoption, Peggy not so politely declined. She lived with an aunt throughout her pregnancy, her father's declaration that she couldn't return to the family home if she kept the baby yet another layer of trauma placed upon Peggy's growing web of trauma. Peggy's trauma occurred at a time and in a place where children born out of wedlock were stigmatizing to both the mother and the child, a fact that led to even Peggy's own physician also encouraging adoption.
Again, Peggy refused.
If it's not readily apparent by now, this story doesn't really have a happy beginning or a happy ending. Against her wishes, Peggy was anesthetized during childbirth and the subsequent cognitive fog clouded the happenings that followed. There were conflicting reports as to whether or not Peggy even saw her newborn daughter and whether or not that daughter was born healthy. All Peggy knows, really, is what she was told the following morning - her daughter had died, a death certificate citing "Darlene," the name Peggy had chosen, had succumbed to lung and heart failure. Peggy was never allowed to spend time with her daughter and was never allowed to attend any type of funeral service.
There were other reports that clouded this mystery. There were reports that the baby had, in fact, been offered up for adoption through a means that wouldn't have necessarily been legal but wasn't all that uncommon at the time. There was even word that a commonly known black market in Tennessee at the time may have been the recipient of Peggy's daughter.
Again, a myriad of possibilities and theories and crossovers and deceptions.
Trauma after trauma after trauma after trauma.
Peggy's life was really forever changed, a missing piece forever leaving the puzzle unsolved.
The story that unfolds is difficult to describe. It may sound like I have already given so much away, yet rest assured I've only begun to describe the story that unfolds in Where She Lies, a labyrinthian mystery with very real human consequences. There are deathbed confessions and uncomfortable meetings, legal battles and even the exhumation of a body.
All in the name, one could say, of finding the missing piece in a life-defining trauma while constantly knowing that even finding that missing piece may simply add yet another layer of trauma again.
Instead, something fairly miraculous happens and Zach Marion captures it beautifully yet simply even while he's an integral part of it. He, first of all, treats Peggy like more than simply the subject of an incredibly compelling story.
He treats her like a human being. It's hard not to feel like she hasn't had that a whole lot in her life.
Peggy, in turn, begins to gain comfort with her own humanity and the power of human connection. Where She Lies, I think, does exactly what a documentary is supposed to do by engaging with a story honestly and allowing it to unfold naturally. As unique and occasionally twisted as this mystery gets here, Where She Lies feels honest and true and maintains the dignity that Peggy so richly deserves.
After its screening at the Lake County Film Festival, Where She Lies is set for an indie digital release from Gravitas Ventures on November 10th. You'll be able to check it out for yourself at Lake County or upon release on Prime Video, Apple TV, Youtube, FandangoNow, and a host of other VOD channels.
Where She Lies is a quietly powerful documentary. Peggy Phillips is, indeed, a quietly powerful woman for whom any sense of closure has always seemed just beyond her grasp until, perhaps, these moments when some answers reveal themselves and humanity, compassion, and belief are given and received and seem to allow her spirit to finally blossom.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic