Finding Vivian Maier ★★★½

This is a perfect premise for a documentary – a compelling character at its core, dripping in mystery, and a metric ton of incredible visuals at the filmmaker's disposal (and with no licensing issues, it can be noted, since he owns the rights). And for the first half, it hits its stride and is as thoroughly engaging as it should be.

John Maloof's journey to uncover the woman behind the contents of mysterious trunks, each filled with negatives, takes us through the lives and pasts of the countless people Vivian Maier interacted with throughout her career. It fills in context through interviews with photographers and curators. All of these are worthwhile, but the film is long-winded for what it's able to accomplish with these perspectives.

The real heart of character seems to lie with her actual family, but we don't spend much time with these people or uncover much about their influence. Instead, importance is placed on people she was intentionally secretive towards.

For a movie about a mysterious woman, we learn much less than we could.

We also aren't given enough perspective on her work by people who understand her craft, which is the lens through which we are able to understand her emotions and thoughts, ostensibly her life’s work. Joel Meyerowitz's commentary is great, here, but it's not enough.

For a movie about the work of an incredible unsung photographer, we also learn rather little about what makes this work so compelling and accessible, or how it’s suddenly become such a huge success.

Don't get me wrong, it's a good film. But what exactly is it trying to accomplish? And why is this not a much better film?

It seems obvious that the relatively recent surge of amateur street photographers harnessing Instagram and modern technology is a perfect parallel to Maier's work, something that would be interesting to explore as a contextual reference point. But while that's a digression, it's just one of countless missed opportunities to tie this doc's findings to the work that made this woman so impressive.

Maloof's challenge is not just to dig, but to connect and distill what he uncovers to make a statement (or even propose one). That's something that is never really delivered with any confidence. Ultimately, this is where the film falters.

The film really bogs down in the last act, as it delves into the more unsavory aspects of the enigmatic photographer, aspects that are never really tied back to her work or its themes. And that’s this film in a nutshell. It’s an expedition into the life of a passionately creative, intensely secretive woman, but it’s missing a strong editorial that focuses all of this research into a cohesive and poignant understanding of its subject.

It tries to find out as much as possible about Maier and her secrets, to piece together the woman behind these impressive pieces of captured history. But it doesn't really doesn't seem to know why.