Caiti Blues – a Review
by Maurie Alioff – Québec Correspondent
(May 8, 2023 – Montréal, QC) Following Hot Docs 2023’s screening of Justine Harbonnier’s Caiti Blues, co-editor Xi Feng explained that the doc originated with the Quebec production company Cinquième Maison, which reached out to France’s Sister Productions. During the Q & A, which I attended, the filmmaker also explained how she and her collaborators worked out the movie’s structure in Montreal and Paris. Winner of the DGC Special Jury Prize for Canadian Feature Documentary, Caiti Blues has zero on-screen Canadian content. And that’s fine. The disarming movie has a Canadian producer and Canadian talent behind it.
Twenty-nine-year old Caiti Lord is at a do-or-die turning point. The film opens on her responding to the touch of an elderly woman healer, which she obviously needs. Caiti feels sick with disappointment and apprehension about a future that seems like a dead end. She works as a bartender in a backwater called Madrid, New Mexico. At one point in the movie she worries about dying of hard work. She remembers getting high on tequila and acid and considering allowing herself to get mowed down by highway traffic.
Pretty and overweight, Caiti’s main consolations are her dog and her autobiographical, self-deprecating raps on a community radio station. Fortunately, Madrid is populated by decidedly non-MAGA ex-hippies, artists, and musicians. Trump lurks in the background like a malevolence these characters strive to ignore.
Caite is stuck inside of Albuquerque with the US blues again. Throughout the doc, she sings blues she writes about herself: “a girl no-one can hold onto.” The film’s chapters get signalled by intertitles of lines from Caiti’s songs, which show real chops.
It takes a while before Harbonnier reveals the backstory that gives Caiti’s dilemma deeper poignancy. As in many current docs, the film deploys old VHS to relay a character’s childhood and adolescence. Impassioned by musical theatre and opera, Caiti performed constantly in all kinds of shows, singing angelically. On top of that she had a 3.6 grade point average in university.
For whatever reason, Caiti decided she needed to be in San Francisco, but en route got stuck in a New Mexican former mining town. The film portrays even the landscape as lacklustre, wintry. A visual pattern shows Caiti in the tiny radio station staring forlornly through a window at a setting that is a far cry from the luminosity you see in Breaking Bad.
The story takes a turn when Caiti is granted an audition for a new job which seems to be about performing. The looming event gives the film a tension that carries it to its endpoint. The climactic audition sequence displays both Caiti’s insecurities and her self-confidence. “I got the job!,” she exults on her phone, but there is no follow-up. Harbonnier leaves her at this moment, free of the bartending that has been oppressing her, but with no indication of what happens next.
The movie’s arc takes the viewer from despair to hope. Its only certainty is music heals. No release date has been announced.
Also see: Hot Docs 2023 Wraps with Awards.
Maurie Alioff is a film journalist, critic, screenwriter and media columnist. He has written for radio and television and taught screenwriting at Montreal’s Vanier College. A former editor for Cinema Canada and Take One, as well as other magazines, he is affiliated with the Quebec media industry publication, CTVM.Info. His articles have appeared in various publications, including Canadian Cinematographer, POV Magazine, and The New York Times. He is the Québec Correspondent for northernstars.ca.