Things to Do

AFI Docs Review: “We Always Lie to Strangers”

A.J. Schnack and David Wilson look at the music tourism mainstay of Branson, Missouri.

What comes to mind when you think of Branson, Missouri? Grand Ole Opry lite? Bible-belt
kitsch? Osmonds? If those are the sum of your thoughts, add “ill-informed preconception.”
And the antidote to that is
We Always Lie to Strangers.

The quietly absorbing documentary by
A.J. Schnack and
David Wilson focuses on four music productions in Branson—where, it’s noted, the population is
10,520, the number of annual visitors 7.5 million, the yearly revenue from tourism
$2.9 billion, and the number of theater seats 64,507 (more than Broadway).

The Presleys’ Country Jubilee—one of the town’s original shows, dating to 1967—stars patriarch Lloyd Presley and
his extended family, including a son married to Branson’s Republican mayor.
The Magnificent Variety Show (boasting “300 costume changes”) is the project of a young couple, Tamra and Joe Tinoco,
and produced in the Osmonds’ theater.
Showstoppers! is an extravaganza on a boat. And the Lennon Brothers are part of a clan that also
spawned the easy-listening Lennon Sisters, a quartet discovered by Lawrence Welk in
the 1950s and a TV fixture for decades.

Wry, fiftysomething mayor Raeanne Presley (“I was marrying a country-music drummer
at a time when country music wasn’t exactly the most glamorous profession in the world”)
is a matter-of-factly eloquent spokesperson for Branson—and displays endearing emotional
vulnerability. The Tinocos, whose four-year-old daughter is among their show’s cast,
struggle to keep going in the recession, in the end having to make hard decisions.
Thoughtful vocalist Bill Lennon breaks Ozark stereotypes with his unabashed liberalism—making
a public-service radio spot for the Democrats and dressing like an aging Berkeley
hippie (in fact, the Lennons hail from Venice, California).

The story with the strongest arc is that of Chip Holderman—a gay
Showstoppers! performer who’s a devoted dad with two sons—and his boyfriend, a
Magnificent Variety Show cast member. Holderman’s ex-wife, who seems nonjudgmental about his sexuality, is
remarried to a bully who threatens Holderman after he comes out to his sons. “It amazes
me that u like to b with a male and yr 2 boys are male,” the husband rants in one
text. As you watch Holderman’s beau, Ryan Walton, bonding with the youngsters over
video games and mini-golf, you can’t help rooting for these two men. As with all the
stories in this film with no narration, the directors let the subjects speak for themselves
and their lives, in all their uncertainty and hopefulness—and sometimes pain.

We Always Lie to Strangers isn’t a music documentary, though it has music in it, from slick to impromptu (and,
in the case of the soundtrack by the indie-folk trio Mountain Man, hauntingly lovely).
It’s a documentary about making one’s way in a particular part of the world—and the
truths along the journey.

Playing June 20, 12 PM, at the National Portrait Gallery and June 21, 3:45 PM at the
AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.