Sundance Review: Misha and the Wolves
There’s a sub-genre of documentary films that have flooded the market in the last five years. We all know this type, the “you won’t believe what happened” film, also known as the “we couldn’t have made up a story this wild if we tried!” movie. These zippy, swervy documentaries can lend themselves to a technical innovation that matches the narrative distinction - 2018 standout Three Identical Strangers is such an example. Unfortunately, they can all-too-easily fall into a very basic trap: that the subject of a documentary is all that matters. This can happen to bio-docs like last year’s Sundance entry Miss Americana (Taylor Swift), and it can happen to stranger-than-fiction docs, like this year’s Misha and the Wolves.
To its credit, Misha builds up a cinematic scaffolding around its subject, the Holocaust literary hoax perpetrated by Misha Defonseca, encasing it in the trappings of the documentary that would have been made had Misha’s story been true. And for its first half, it strings us along, doling out bits and pieces of this winding story with clarity, concision, and cleverness. Told primarily through talking heads and an array of different visual recreations, Misha saves its major reveal for about halfway through. But once it comes, and the layers of the film are peeled back in conjunction with those of Misha’s tall tale, we’re left to discover...not much else.
Misha fumbles in this second half. The “story you won’t believe” documentary about Misha’s life shifts 5 degrees to become the “story you won’t believe” documentary about Misha’s fake life, retaining all the same players and a nearly identical playbook. It touches briefly on a few truly fascinating stories - especially one told by an actual Holocaust survivor about the ingenius use of four separate books for safely tracking separated families - but is too engrossed in its own “wow, can you believe what happened next?!” storytelling style to linger on the moments that matter.
This focus can be especially frustrating when it pulls attention away from the more creative aspects of Misha. Throughout its first hour, Misha director Sam Hobkinson relies on an elaborately fake “interview” and jittery, faux-flashback footage of Misha’s false childhood to weave together a story of art and artifice. Yet as it transitions, it falls into cliches, including repeatedly positioning an investigative genealogist in front of a corkboard with pins, thread, and pictures, simulating the “search” for the truth. In Misha and the Wolves, that search is intermittently fascinating and engaging, but the film suffers when it drowns out everything else.