In "306 Hollywood," the filmmakers present their grandmother’s belongings in a whimsical fashion.
In "306 Hollywood," the filmmakers present their grandmother’s belongings in a whimsical fashion.

Grandma’s possessions tell her story in ‘306 Hollywood’

Annette Ontell, the New Jersey grandmother at the center of the glorified home movie “306 Hollywood,” lived an ordinary middle-class Jewish existence for six decades at that Newark address.

Plenty of wonderful and profound documentaries have been made about the small-scale triumphs and travails of everyday people. “306 Hollywood,” which received its West Coast premiere in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and opens today in local theaters, is not among them.

Siblings Elan and Jonathan Bogarín affect an imaginative and stylized “dig” into their dear grandmother’s objects and possessions to the accompaniment of a kinda whimsical, kinda wistful indie-film score. Their strategy yields a parade of eye-catching images and bizarre set pieces that, individually and collectively, provide no insight into this American life.

To be sure, the filmmakers’ goals are worthwhile: to uncover and grasp the meaning in a person’s life, and to honor and preserve the memory of a beloved relative whom they visited with their mother almost every Sunday for 30 years.

The upshot, however, is that “306 Hollywood” combines the lacquered sheen and pastel palette of long-form television with the naiveté-masquerading-as-perceptiveness of a film-school project.

The Bogaríns opt to catalog and focus on the massive detritus — from radios and vacuum cleaners to rubber bands and fashion magazine clippings — that their grandmother amassed over the more than 60 years she resided in the house, most of those with her husband.

Annette had a career as a dress designer and dressmaker, but the creative person she once was doesn’t emerge in the prosaic interviews that Elan and Jonathan filmed with her over the last decade of her life.

So to conjure a person (and a personality) from her inanimate objects, the filmmakers enlist a “fashion conservator.” To invoke the metaphysical resonances of time and memory, they turn to physicist and author Alan Lightman.

Perhaps in a nod to Annette’s artistic impulses, the Bogaríns stage a fashion show with her original evening dresses in the yard at her home, and a ballet of young women modeling mid-20th-century lingerie.

These sequences are visually impressive but self-indulgent. They aren’t as misguided, however, as the excruciatingly long home-movie scene of the filmmakers’ mother cajoling Annette (her mother) into disrobing and donning one of her vintage dresses from the ’50s.

The pained presence of an older woman prodded into revisiting the past through her garments does have one benefit: It frees “306 Hollywood” from the bonds of hagiography.

But none of this gets us any closer to appreciating Annette, or any emblematic Jewish mother, or to gleaning significance from the connection that human beings have to their possessions.

The filmmakers’ choices are so showily ineffective, in fact, that we only rarely reflect on the emotions triggered by the absence and memories of our own forebears.

The most gifted filmmaker I know at transforming the personal into the universal, and the banal into the profound, is Alan Berliner, who received the Freedom of Expression Award from the SFJFF in 2013. The New York documentary maker’s masterful family portraits “Intimate Stranger” (1991) and “Nobody’s Business” (1996) can be streamed for free through Kanopy, accessible with a San Francisco Public Library card.

“306 Hollywood” opens Friday, Oct. 5 at the Vogue Theatre in San Francisco, the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley and the Rialto Cinemas Sebastopol. (94 minutes, unrated)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.