Critics' Pick

In Transit (NR)

June 21, 2017
By Alan Scherstuhl
The sweet, slight In Transit  -- like the journeys it documents, on Amtrak's Empire Builder Chicago-to-Seattle line -- is all about connections, about people moving on to new lives or going back home to old ones, about what happens when American strangers have so much time to kill that they can't avoid talking to each other. The film (directed by the late Albert Maysles and collaborators from the Maysles Documentary Center) opens with two young wanderers taking turns detailing their ramblin'-life philosophies: "You know what's scary? Staying where you are!" The filmmakers catch travelers chatting with each other, the conversations often profound and deeply personal.
For all that big emotion, the film is also fleet and light, interested in everyday train problems — of course a little boy loses his shoes — and life on the plains. The oil boom has remade Dakota life, and we meet many young men working in that business, usually far away from family or lovers.

One lays out his plan to work seven hard years and then be "set for life," a phrase none of the older people would use. They know that all of us are forever in a process of becoming, and that time out from your current everyday -- time in transit -- can be a gift, whether you're barrelling toward a fixed destination or not. One woman says, heartbreakingly, "I'm transitioning in my marriage," and she would prefer not to leave the train at all. Once she's off these rails, she has to make some hard choices. The film was shot in 2013 and '14, so nobody mentions Trump. It's 76 minutes of Americans at the best and kindest. It's a vacation.

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