Even if Robert Greene’s documentary Actress were just about the shady lines between sincerity and fakery for a woman who pretends for a living, it’d still be extraordinary. Actress gets uncomfortably close to Brandy Burre, a stay-at-home mom approaching 40, living in a nice house in picturesque Beacon, New York. A theater-trained actor who came closest to the big time when she had a recurring role on The Wire, Burre quit the business altogether to raise kids with her restauranteur boyfriend, Tim Reinke. As Actress begins, Burre has started heading into the city occasionally to do a cabaret act, and is thinking about making herself available again to go out on auditions. Greene documents Burre’s tentative steps toward a comeback, in a film that’s mostly framed as an intimate slice-of-life, but that occasionally—and provocatively—inserts staged, expressionistic interludes. Actress plays with the audience, raising questions about the extent to which “Brandy Burre” is just a character.
It’s the why of it all that makes Actress more than just cleverly philosophical. Actress is about a woman who initially seems to be leading a comfortable middle-class existence, but as the movie plays out, it becomes increasingly clear that Burre feels trapped by the parts she has to play as a mother and a domestic partner, and by the lack of control she has over her career. Ultimately, even Actress’ blatantly phony moments serve a larger truth.
Greene doesn’t go for a lot of setup or explanation. Burre frequently looks into the camera and talks, but there’s never a moment in Actress where she says, “Hi, my name’s Brandy Burre, and I used to be on The Wire,” or anything similar. Greene just drops the audience into the middle of a slow-building maelstrom, and lets them figure out who’s who, what’s happening, and why it matters. Eventually, two stories develop: the difficulties Burre has in getting her career back on track, given her age and her maternal responsibilities, and the sadly inevitable deterioration of her relationship with the father of her children.
For those who think of documentary filmmaking as primarily journalistic (which is a limiting, yet not unreasonable perspective), Actress comes up significantly short. The film’s point of view is largely contained to Burre, so there isn’t much of a larger context to her professional or romantic life. Tim remains a remote, stoic figure throughout Actress—more symbol than person. And the movie doesn’t strictly present a this-follows-that timeline, which can make it difficult to know whether Burre’s responding to a fresh setback in any given scene, or just feeling overwhelmed by how impossible her life has become in general.
Yet Actress’ hazy, unmoored feeling works in its favor more often than not. The movie means to get behind Burre’s eyes—sometimes in straightforward ways, as when Greene catches Burre crying because one of her kids had a birthday party with Tim’s family in another state, and sometimes more abstractly, as when Greene sets up a shot to make it look like Burre is floating through her own house with a coat hanger in her hand. Actress is about the practical problems of being in a business that projects women in their late 30s into “bitchy, over-the-hill girlfriend” parts (where “of course there’s nudity”). But it’s also about the roles Burre has to play at home: as cheerleader, disciplinarian, decorator, cook, teacher, and maid, and as the version of herself in her own head, where she’s dressed like a perfect 1950s housewife.
Burre is better at playing some of these characters than others. But one of Actress’ main points is that she doesn’t have much choice about who she gets to be, either as an actress or a mom. She tries to tell herself, only half-jokingly, that organizing her kids’ rooms is “my creative outlet.” But Burre is justifiably frustrated that she lacks both the money and the free time to follow her dream. For a film that starts out as a portrait of one semi-retired performer, Actress ends up having a lot to say about social expectations, gender roles, the burdens of parenthood, and how the economy forces people into living lives governed by logistics more than personal satisfaction. It’s simultaneously tricky and profound—a documentary about something small that gradually grows to cover so much more.