I was initially very mixed on the premise of Cassidy Friedman’s CIRCLES, which follows Eric Butler, an Oakland guidance counsellor who has to balance his work and the discipline of his son. While the documentary could have ventured into moving territory or resulting in a story that felt too closed in, thankfully Friedman manages his attempt to create the former. CIRCLES is a heartfelt and inspiring doc that uses its small scale to form an intimacy between the viewer and the characters and as well being very entertaining.
Amongst the many things that CIRCLES has going for it, the strongest element of the documentary is the affection you feel towards the primary subjects. Eric Butler is proven to be such a likeable character through what we see in not only his work, but also his home life. And when we see the emotional struggle he has along with the way he feels overwhelmed with all that is going on in his life, we feel even more invested in his story. What truly progresses that even further are the two primary relationships of his that are presented in the film.
While Butler’s mentor type relation to student Mercedes Morgan has stakes and creates a genuine intrigue, the relationship he has with his son Tre (who himself is in and out of juvenile detention) is even more captivating. The way Friedman balances multiple storylines, all of which are intriguing, is a big part of the success of the documentary.
CIRCLES is definitely one of the most intimate experiences I have felt with the characters of a story at HotDocs so far. Friedman’s direction not only sucks you in immediately, but it gives you an up close and personal look at the lives of his characters that makes for an emotional experience unlike I have ever seen before.
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