Martha’s Vineyard is the largest island on the East Coast that isn’t connected to any bridges. That intriguing factoid, conveyed at the beginning of Somewhere with No Bridges, explains the title right up front, but also opens a window into the film’s exploration of a cloistered community. A documentary that pieces together fragments of various doc forms, from verité to portrait to essay, the film also pieces together the distant but vivid memories of a community stuck in a state of perpetual grief, subsisting on the joyful recollections of one of their own, but haunted by the fact that they can’t create new ones.
Charles Frank is the film’s director, and for him this story is personal. In his opening narration, he describes his first memory, as a five-year-old boy, witnessing his father collapse in mourning at the news of a friend’s mysterious and untimely death. It’s a memory that has haunted him throughout his life, and this film is an attempt to achieve catharsis. Through snippets of interviews with members of the tight-knit fishing community on Martha’s Vineyard, we come to realize that a version of that same tragic memory is shared among so many on the island, who seem to have all grown up together and formed a sort of extended family. This family, living together over decades on this island with no bridges, feels trapped by circumstances, plagued by a sorrow that seems to ebb and flow with the tides of the Atlantic.
For whom do they grieve? We learn his name and see witness splintered images of his life, but quite frankly, it’s difficult to fully grasp. Richie Madeiras was a favorite son among the fisherman on the island, with a burly, imposing presence and a personality to match. He was a larger-than-life figure on multiple levels, and he left an ocean-sized hole when he disappeared off the Atlantic coast in the fall of 1999. It’s intimated that he drowned, though the film is spare in the details it provides. Perhaps the ensuing two-plus decades have elevated Richie’s image, but those who knew him certainly view him on a sort of mythical level. Nico Bovat, the film’s editor, layers a dissolving montage of interviewees navigating through the emotions Richie left in his wake: first expressing loving reverence, then bursting into laughter, and eventually melting into tears. “Richie was a guy who could never be replaced,” notes a lifelong friend, and indeed, it seems many who loved him are left with an empty void they’ve never been able to fill, even more than 20 years later.
While that void is a focal point in Somewhere with No Bridges, it is also a vacuum that consumes any thematic clarity the filmmakers are attempting to achieve. It’s difficult to fully convey Richie’s essence and influence, because as copious as the glowing perspectives are, no one seems to have reached a point of cleansing perspective in the ensuing decades. That extends to the director, Frank, haunted by his initial childhood memories but unable to properly contextualize them. It’s a challenge he notes midway through – “I didn’t start out knowing what kind of film I was making,” he confides in his narration, and the process of completing the work doesn’t seem to have cemented anything. Aesthetically, Frank demonstrates deftness in multiple documentary forms, but is less assured in how those forms coalesce thematically. The film is effectively languorous and meditative, but that wave of ponderousness doesn’t ultimately lead anywhere conclusive.
Somewhere with No Bridges feels like the movie Frank needed to make in order to prepare himself for a more centered and contextualized version of this same story sometime in the future of his career. It’s an intriguing work of attempted but unsuccessful catharsis, a bridge to a later film that will eventually, hopefully, unlock what it – and so many who knew and loved Richie Madeiras – are searching for: closure.