`Home Front' comes home

Pikesville native Richard Hankin brings his terrific documentary to the Maryland Film Festival


NEW YORK -- Early in 2004, Richard Hankin, the producer and editor of the mesmerizing Capturing the Friedmans (2003), set out to examine a subject mainstream media had largely ignored: the psychological and physical readjustment of thousands of men and women who'd lost the use of limbs or senses during military duty in Iraq.

He discovered the focus for the documentary Home Front when he looked up John Melia, who established the Wounded Warrior Project to support injured veterans and their families (and was himself a vet wounded during Marine action in Somalia).

"John went to Towson State in the '80s," Hankin said, "and joined the Marines a bit after he left. We bonded over Baltimore."

Hankin grew up in Pikesville. He comes back to Baltimore this weekend - in triumph - to present Home Front, his directorial debut, at the Maryland Film Festival.

This lucid knockout of a movie chronicles the odyssey of an Iraq War vet, Jeremy Feldbusch, who came home without any sight and with a brain injury. He settled back into his family's house in Blairsville, in rural southwestern Pennsylvania. Both Feldbusch and Hankin will appear at Home Front's festival screenings.

Like Hankin's fictional model, William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Home Front develops cathartic power from the filmmaker's sensitivity to character. Images such as Jeremy getting a Christmas tree with his father during a snowfall, or sitting at his older brother's wedding, bobbing his head to the music as the newlyweds dance in front of him, ignite marrow-deep feelings without pleading for your sympathy. Jeremy, his parents and his older brother support the war; his younger brother quietly disagrees with them. The movie honors them all.

Hankin started shooting nearly two years ago, when Melia organized a public-speaking clinic for the Wounded Warrior Project in New York City.

"As soon as I saw Jeremy with his mother, Charlene, I was immediately struck by their circumstance. This guy was a seriously accomplished and motivated soldier: He graduated first in his class of Army Rangers. And now, if he has to go to the bathroom, Charlene leads him into the ladies room, because she figured out early on it was easier to explain why he was in a ladies' room than why she was in a men's room."

But more than any pathos or irony, the sturdiness and generosity of Jeremy, his fellow Wounded Warriors, and his family fill the core of the film. "Jeremy's recovery will be lifelong, but in the midst of it, he, like his friends in the Project, keeps focusing on how to help the other guys who are coming back."

Hankin doesn't blink at rifts on the psychological home front. Jeremy wants independence but keeps his mother on close call. She can't go to the gas station without having him phone to say he's hungry; she retorts that he just had "a bowl of cake."

And Jeremy's brain injury hampers his self-control. In one amazing sequence, as turbulent as it is touching, Jeremy's father, Brace, prepares him for a hunting jaunt during deer season. Jeremy grows impatient when learning how to use a handgun with a laser-targeting device that allows Brace to be his aim. Jeremy shoots off a round of bullets in anger and frustration. But neither Brace nor Hankin panics. Brace lays down the law - and Jeremy eventually bags his deer.

For Hankin, who "did not grow up with hunting" and found it "very alien culturally," this adventure was a revelation. "There's a moment I love, when Brace is pointing out where his father used to take him. That's what it's about - this father-son tradition that's really important to the family."

Hankin's directorial virtues include patience, pace and structure, and an eye for external details that reveal inner strength. But paramount is his ability to see beyond his preconceptions - and thus shake audiences out of theirs.

The Baltimore premiere of Home Front is at 7 tomorrow night at the Charles Theatre.


The lowdown


Maryland Film Festival


Today through Sunday


The Charles Theatre (1711 N. Charles St., 410-727-FILM), the Senator Theatre (5904 York Road, 410-435-8338), the Rotunda Cinematheque (711 W. 40th St., 410-235-4800) and Falvey Hall at MICA (1301 Mount Royal Ave.)


$250 for all-access passes; $35 for opening night screening and party; $25 for closing night screening and party, $10 general admission for each showing, $8 for students and seniors and $15 for special select tickets


410-752-8083 or visit www.mdfilmfest.com

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