How Documentaries Became the Hottest Genre of the Summer

5 minute read

Ah, Summer! the season of Superhero Blockbusters and exhilarating action movies, enterprises that demand little more of us than shutting down some of our brain power and sinking into cushy stadium seats. But the summer of 2018 has put a wrinkle in that pattern. We’re in the midst of a mini documentary boom, during a season in which a surprising number of people have made the effort to go out to the movies–to see a nonfiction film. Since its June release, Morgan Neville’s documentary portrait of beloved TV personality and children’s advocate Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, has grossed $22 million at the box office. Two other docs–Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s homage to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, RBG, released in May, and Tim Wardle’s potent and unsettling adoption saga, Three Identical Strangers, which opened in June–have also hit big at the box office, grossing some $13.7 million and $10 million, respectively.

Those figures are nothing close to what huge hits like Black Panther or Avengers: Infinity War have raked in. But they’re still surprising. Think of it this way: All three of these docs have already cracked the list of top 30 highest-grossing documentaries since 1982–and they’ve been in theaters for only three or four months. (The top-grossing doc since 1982, according to Box Office Mojo, is Michael Moore’s 2004 Fahrenheit 9/11, which has made $119 million to date.)

It’s too soon to tell if this current love affair with documentaries is the beginning of a trend or simply a testament to the quality of these three films. But sometimes numbers tell a story that has less to do with profit statistics than with an almost indescribable state of yearning: What if this summer’s big documentaries–and a few others that aren’t as splashy but are still worth your time–are giving audiences something they didn’t know they needed? At a time when the press is under constant attack and many of our government leaders operate under a rather elastic definition of the truth, maybe audiences are looking to connect with stories they can truly believe in.

The rise of documentary films may run on a parallel track with the recent popularity of true-crime podcasts. Of the new doc crop, Three Identical Strangers is most similar to a whodunit. It may not be a true-crime story, but it is a tragic mystery with a sinister twist. Director Wardle tells the story of Eddy Galland, David Kellman and Bobby Shafran, triplets who were separated at birth in the early 1960s and adopted by three different families. The trio found one another, almost miraculously, in the early 1980s and enjoyed a brief run as minor celebrities–until certain facts about their adoption disrupted the fairy tale. The picture asks some teasing questions about nature vs. nurture, and it’s as suspenseful as any fiction that a screenwriter could dream up.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? strikes a different chord. As the world looks today, it’s a wonder that a man like Rogers, so generous and so concerned with the welfare of others–particularly children–could ever have existed. He’s one of those rare people who demonstrably left the world a better place. Little wonder people leave this movie feeling at least a little better too.

RBG seems to have a similar galvanizing effect on audiences by parting the curtain on Ginsburg, a rather private figure who has recently become a hero to young women. It also makes the case, subtly, for bipartisan unity. Ginsburg and her late Supreme Court colleague Antonin Scalia disagreed vehemently on judicial issues, but clearly had a blast hanging out. One of this doc’s signature visuals is a photograph of the two of them in India, waving and smiling while perched on an elephant.

Summer 2018 has also graced us with McQueen, Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s moving portrait of the late designer Alexander McQueen; The King, from Eugene Jarecki, a bracing essay film linking the rise and fall of Elvis Presley with America’s own ups and downs; and Wim Wenders’ Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, about a man who, in the vein of Rogers, stands strong against the cruelty and thoughtlessness that tears at the fabric of our world.

Streaming services are part of this documentary groundswell too. Netflix has long been a platform for viewers to catch up with documentaries they may have missed in theaters. But the service also produces documentaries of its own, like the recent Recovery Boys, focusing on four men struggling to overcome opioid abuse. And when it comes to one of the loveliest, most wrenching documentaries of this summer, you have a choice: Minding the Gap, the debut film from director Bing Liu, is playing in theaters–but you can also watch it on Hulu. Set in the Rust Belt city of Rockford, Ill., the film tells the story of three young skateboarders, one of whom is Bing himself, from adolescence to adulthood. This gorgeous film, a snapshot of what it’s like to be young in a forgotten corner of today’s America, deserves to be seen big, but in a pinch your television or laptop will do. The most human stories always feel big, even if the pictures have gotten smaller.

This appears in the September 03, 2018 issue of TIME.

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