MONSTER ROAD: Life, death, happiness and clay.

Monster Road

dir. Ingram
Opens Fri July 2
Clinton Street Theater

A documentary about quirky claymation animator Bruce Bickford, Monster Road is a subtle, understated film that somehow manages to encompass themes of life, death, happiness, art, and why Bill Gates has yet to turn his mansion into a major claymation studio.

Following Bickford as he recounts everything from growing up to sculpting his latest creations, the film tangentially spins off to examine everything from an abandoned fallout shelter near Bickford's Seattle-area home to his Alzheimer's-stricken father, George. Interspersed with surreal clips from Bickford's imaginative, colorful films, the film maintains a floaty, ethereal quality throughout.

Aside from the animation itself, the film's pedestrian sequences are it's most interesting points. Listening to Bickford's thoughts about everything from his art to his competitive childhood is fascinating, and his discussions with his father are genuinely touching. (While Bickford can remember details like his mother's encouragement or his brother's suicide, George's memories and philosophies are hazy and inconsistent, even as he constantly displays an emotional undercurrent of regret and a cynical sort of sweetness.)

But the film's celebration of Bickford's low-key, offbeat existence is both a good and a bad thing--on one hand, the whole thing's so relaxed that the camera is nearly transparent, and director Brett Ingram avoids many of the Ken Burns-y clichés most documentarians fall into. On the other hand, the film's focus (or lack thereof) stretches out insignificant moments as much as it does significant ones--watching Bickford repeatedly climb trees or constantly fawn over his miniature creations gets old pretty damn quick, no matter how endearing it is.

While Ingram's directorial focus is meandering, Monster Road is also smart and affectionate. The film maintains just enough distance to let the Bickfords' personalities come to the fore; in a film focusing on themes and individuals such as these, that's a respectful technique that pays off for the audience, and, one senses, for the Bickfords as well.