Alice Neel is a spiritual and tonal clone of My Architect, Nathaniel Kahn's icky, self-aggrandizing 2003 documentary about his father. Like Kahn, Andrew Neel plays a dual role here as both director and grandson of the eponymous Alice, a well-known portraitist. And also like Kahn, he insists on picking at the scabs of his family's secrets until we feel embarrassed for him. In one scene, the filmmaker exchanges a volley of "fuck you"s with his father; in another, he prods his uncle to discuss childhood abuse. Alice comes off best: always painting, never whining, despite a lack of funds or fame. When the brash, bad-boy theatrics of Abstract Expressionism consumed the 1950s art world, Neel's figurative humanism was so unfashionable that she and her children lived on welfare. Still, she sketched on the streets of Greenwich Village and took lovers of a most unsuitable sort, including a dope fiend. Neel is a compelling subject, but she's more alive in one of her paintings than in all of the voluminous video footage her grandson thrusts upon us.
Alice doesn't quite come to life in her Neel portrait.
Runs at Northwest Film Forum, Fri., May 16–Thurs., May 22. Not rated. 82 minutes.