When his grandmother Allis died in 2001, Morgan Dews uncovered an archive she had amassed during the 1960s chronicling her turbulent outer and inner life. She had been married, until his death in 1969, to Charley, a Hartford, Conn., group life insurance executive who regularly spent four months of the year on business in Australia. To keep in touch during these absences, the couple, who had four children, purchased Dictaphone recorders. It is this material, almost 50 hours' worth, as well as 300 pages of diary tapes and transcripts and over 200 home movies, that make up Dews's documentary "Must Read After My Death," an unsettling portrait of a broken family.
Allis and Charley might seem on the surface to be a generic suburban couple living out a traditional marriage. But Charley's drinking and philandering and Allis's ache to break the bonds of a confining motherhood are the standout themes of this documentary. All of her children were in need of psychological counseling, as well as Charley and herself. (Many of the audio and diary entries focus on various group therapy sessions.) What ultimately emerges is a fragmented but resonant portrait of a couple, a family, caught between the traditionalism of the 1950s and the boundary-breaking '60s.
Dews perhaps makes too much of the notion that Allis was a woman out of her time – a feminist precursor. This is too sociological a formulation for such a patently psychological crisis. But his film is a reminder, as was "Capturing the Friedmans" and others, that the advent of recording devices and home movies in the postwar era allowed many American families, unwittingly or not, to set down the history of their lives in ways previously unthinkable. One can only imagine – i.e., dread – what the Facebook generation will come up with. Grade: B+.