Sundance London: The Case Against 8 review

Both form and subject rightly take their place in the discussion of films, but it seems like documentaries often get a pass if their form is severely lacking, whereas fiction films don’t seem to get such an easy ride.

It’s perhaps not too surprising that documentaries coast by on their subject matter, given how effective it can be to just tell the basics of a compelling or upsetting story. The facts can have impact regardless of how poor the storytelling is. But this has led to the critical celebration of many documentaries that hang their success purely on an engaging or important subject.

And so we come to The Case Against 8, which lays out the story of an incredibly interesting case. The true story is filled with complex political situations, engaging emotional dynamics and ethical positions well worth considering, all of this then related in a mostly bland and formulaic manner.

The Case Against 8 focuses on the successful attempt by a talented legal team and two brave same-sex couples to stand up against Proposition 8, the legal maneuver which effectively banned same-sex marriage in California just six months after it had been made legal.

Directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White follow the story from the time at which a case was considered in 2008, to when Prop 8 was finally rendered formally unconstitutional on June the 26th 2013.

We follow Kristin Perry, Sandra Stier, Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo, the two couples who were vetted and selected to front the case. As the film unfolds we’re party to the details of the case as built and delivered by newly united former rivals Ted Olsen and David Boies.

Many considered Olsen’s decision to fight for the rights of the LGBTQ community a switch of ‘sides.’ It’s absurd that some would say an advocate for constitutional rights such as Olsen would not be in favour of LBGTQ rights, and it’s here that film finds a powerful launching point from which to leap into the meat of its story.

We are introduced to Olsen in the film’s first scene as he argues the case that blocking same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. But the cracks in the filmmaking appear even in these first few shots, before they quickly widen into gaping crevices. The camera zooms in and out, waves from side to side, lurching around before the framing is finally settled upon. It’s a bad omen of what is to come and over the course of the film’s one hundred and nine minutes, there’s hardly ever any sense that the importance of form came to the forefront of Cotner and White’s minds.

Even the score from Blake Neely sounds so off the peg that it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that it was recycled from another documentary or ripped from a CD of copyright free library music.

But, of course, the subject is compelling and laid out with just enough detail to make sure any audience with an ounce of empathy is gripped. The two couples’ personal stories also add emotion to proceedings, as was also clearly intended by those who brought the case about. As Prop 8 is finally shown being wiped from law and both couples get married in front of the press, I and my screening audience were wiping tears from our eyes.

But I just can’t shake the feeling that we would have been moved just the same way by shaky YouTube footage of the event as filmed on someone’s cellphone. This was a profound historical moment and it’s incredible to see it unfold, but the events and their importance are not best served by this run-of-the-mill documentary.

The Case Against 8 will be released in US cinemas on the 6th of June and although no UK release date has been announced yet, the film has been picked up for distribution by the ever dependable Dogwoof.