Once upon a time, the movie rental store reigned supreme and was a neighborhood hub in cities and towns across the U.S. Now largely a relic of the past, the few that remain are more than video stores — they are curated libraries for film lovers. At the Video Store, the new documentary from James Westby (The Auteur; Film Geek), is an ode to the once great industry staple and a celebration of those remaining survivors for whom daily operation is more a labor of love than a viable business.
Movie geeks will revel in Westby’s low-budget yet creative love letter to a largely bygone cultural chapter. The independent video store (read: not Blockbuster) was a place where film nerds could be “the cool kids.” It was the place where a slightly creepy video clerk with an encyclopedic knowledge of cult cinema could hold court and cast judgment on lesser beings. Using interviews with shop owners as well as filmmakers and actors — including John Waters, Gus Van Sant, Bill Hader, Nicole Holofcener, Todd Haynes and Kevin Corrigan — At the Video Store explores the importance of this institution’s impact on society.
Their reminiscences evoke the viewer’s own memories: that video store smell, perusing the titles, the cinematic discoveries and, of course, the conversations. Each of the stores featured in the documentary has its own distinct style, yet they all share one very special thing in common: community. The footage taken in some of the country’s last and, in some cases, legendary video stores is a pure delight. Through his interviews and his own cinematic sensibilities, Westby captures the off-beat nature of the typical cinephile.
Unfortunately, the narrative is interrupted by satirical music video cutaways, created just for the film. Initially, it’s a bit of lark, but as the film goes on, it’s a slightly cringe-worthy indulgence that many viewers will find distracting. With a running time of only 72 minutes, Westby could have given a little more attention to the many wonderful characters who are fighting to keep this dinosaur of a business alive.
At the Video Store took several years to complete — and, sadly, some of the stores featured in the documentary are now no longer open. Though released during the golden age of streaming, the film makes the case that there is still a place and need for well-curated movie collections in our communities. Ultimately, Westby gives us hope that the video store, and the human connection it offers, will survive. That’s an industry rewind this movie geek would love to see.
Available to rent starting Aug. 14 via grailmoviehouse.com