What was once a humongous fad that offered cities countless revenue and enabled citizens to shop and socialize has now all but almost disappeared completely. The shopping mall, defeated mostly by the surge of online stores, is a dying breed that suffered its fate by the very people that once kept it alive. This irony is explored in directors Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb’s documentary, Jasper Mall. They spend a year filming in the titular mall in Jasper, Alabama, about forty minutes northwest of Birmingham, capturing the lives of its shop owners, security, and customers. What follows is a nostalgic and bittersweet look at a commodity we all have all taken for granted – something we might not even realize until we watch Jasper Mall.
The mall itself is dying, slowly losing store after store after having much success in the 1980s and 1990s. Thomason and Whitcomb depict a year in the life of several of the mall’s employees and frequent visitors. A jeweler with an episode of Columbo playing in the background is preparing to move to a new location. Two beauticians long for leaving their small hometown. A group of retirees occupy their time by playing dominos in the food court. Two teenagers go through the ups and downs of high school romance at their key date location. The audience is guided by the mall’s jack-of-all-trades security guard/janitor/manager/caretaker, Mike McClelland.
Viewers slowly get to know the real-life subjects and what the mall means to them as the year progresses. For some it’s a responsibility, a place to house their business, and for others, a place to hang out. Overall, the mall is seen as a home for many people and the knowledge of its eventual closure slowly but surely weighs down on them all.
Thomason and Whitcomb film their documentary in a cinema vérité manner, keeping things observational and almost acting as flies on the wall. The subjects address the camera occasionally in order to give context, but for the most part the filmmakers are interested in watching the day-to-day operations. In doing this, Jasper Mall offers a nostalgic look at institutions familiar to all of us.
For some audience members, this method might come off as a bit underwhelming. There isn’t much that truly happens in Jasper Mall, but that may be its point. Business is not exactly going as usual: it’s slower. There are instances in which the audience is made aware of several empty spaces that businesses used to house. They see a few close shop in the film and are well aware that the rest are on their way. Life is slow in the Jasper Mall and that is unfortunately not going to change.
For other audience members, however, they might find this refreshing. Myself, in particular, appreciated seeing something representative of my home state. While I may not have grown up in Jasper, I’ve frequented a few malls that are beginning to look strikingly similar to Jasper as the years go on. I’m sure many other audience members have as well. It doesn’t induce a sense of nostalgia, exactly – at least, not anything in a joyous sense. Perhaps it’s just the feeling of seeing something that we’ve seen in real life. It causes us to step back for a moment and realize what they are missing and also realize what a strain it has put on the people close to it.
Because of this, Jasper Mall felt like a personal film. It very well won’t feel like that for some audiences, but a documentary like this seems to know how to find the right demographic. If you happen to be in it, then this is a watch that is well worth your time.