A Conventional Documentary About a Complex Writer


Poster for FLANNERY (2019)

In case it’s been a few years since you’ve sat at in a wraparound desk and studied the syntax of dead people, a refresher: Flannery O’Connor was an American writer known for her short stories centered on Southern culture and macabre subject matter. If you took a literature course in high school or college, O’Connor may not have been the first person you covered that semester, but if the course gave any attention to 20th century American authors, it’d be nigh impossible to go the whole term without mentioning her. I can’t remember how many times I was assigned to read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” between 9th grade and college graduation—such is the life of an English-Education-turned-Journalism major—but I never forgot that story or her distinct voice. Her black comedy and complicated characters have stayed in my memory beyond my final exams, which—no disrespect to the many writers I can’t name right now—confirms how memorable her storytelling was.

I could easily imagine high school English teachers adding Flannery to their curriculum, so much so I wondered if I should write an essay about her use of imagery instead of writing this review.

The straightforward documentary Flannery is an attempt to capture that legacy. Mary Steenburgen provides voiceover as O’Connor, bringing alive her stories, journals, and letters. Detailed illustrations fill in our understanding of the abridged versions of her work, and interviews with her friends and names as notable as Alice Walker and Tommy Lee Jones provide commentary on how her life and work collided. At minimum, this documentary is evidence O’Connor has plenty of intelligent fans, and it’s clear the team behind this doc crafted it with admiration for her.

An illustration of Flannery O'Connor's story A Good Man Is Hard to Find

That attention to detail rescues this traditional documentary from becoming just a straight reading of her Wikipedia page. Flannery is the perfect high-level introduction for those not familiar with the author, and I can easily picture high school English teachers adding it to their curriculum, so much so I wondered if I should write an essay about her use of imagery instead of writing this review! To the movie’s credit, it’s more engaging than many of the educational films my teachers used to fill class time, and it leaves no question as to why her work has stood the test of time.

Of course, the film can only scratch the surface of her life in 97 minutes. Her health issues and devout Catholicism are well-explored, but I wished for more time dedicated to her knotty relationship to the South and the civil rights movement, as well as greater context on how her work fits into the American literary canon. At least the film doesn’t reduce her to an icon. The film knows she was a complex woman with contradictory and controversial views, but this documentary is only a jumping off point for trying to parse through them.

Flannery O’Connor came to mind earlier this year when reviewing the soon-to-be Best Picture winner Parasite, a dark, funny story with a kindred spirit to her world and characters. Her work still has an audience today, and while Flannery does pay tribute to that, its conventional approach lacks the bite of the one-of-a-kind reputation that precedes her.