“A Bread Factory,” written and directed by Patrick Wang, is a drama that tickles your spirit in a special, buoyant way. It’s set in the small town of Checkford, N.Y. (it was shot in the picturesque historical village of Hudson), and though Wang has conceived the film as an epic — it’s four hours long, and is being shown in two parts, each of which is presented as a movie unto itself — “A Bread Factory” revolves around something that may sound astonishingly minor: a community arts center, the sort of homespun place that presents plays, chamber-music concerts, and art shows and hosts the occasional visiting luminary and features after-school programs for children.
The center is called the Bread Factory (that’s because it’s situated in an old bread factory), and it’s been run for 40 years by its two founders, crusty WASPy Dorothea (Tyne Daly) and elegant Finnish-born Greta (Elisabeth Henry), who are married, and who we recognize as the sort of gray-pony-tailed believers in “creativity” who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s and have spent the years doing all they can to “keep the dream alive.” “A Bread Factory” is about how the dream is fading. Not just the postwar American notion of a local arts community but something much, much deeper — the dream of community itself.
I’ve made “A Bread Factory” sound terribly earnest, but it’s a vibrant and moving drama that’s also an agreeably flaked-out ensemble comedy. The film’s secret weapon is that it never lets you pigeonhole it as one or the other. It’s as if Eric Rohmer had made a Christopher Guest film — “Waiting for Guffman” recast as an ardent inquiry into what small-town American life has become. It’s an understated and contemplative movie, yet every scene in it feels like an adventure, and much of it is dryly funny. When someone calls the Bread Factory office for tickets to an opera and asks for special seats because he has a medical condition, Dorothea asks what the condition is and requests him to spell it, “just so when we’re in the ambulance, I can let them know.”
Another actress would have played that as a one-liner, but Tyne Daly makes it more droll by being totally serious about it. In “A Bread Factory,” she’s formidable, like Frances McDormand with less quirks. Her Dorothea is a caretaker who believes in what she’s doing, yet somewhere along the way the culture left her behind. The movie is structured as a battle between organic values and the 21st-century spirit of corporate takeover. A new arts center, known as May Ray, has opened, and it’s a splashy theatrical space that features a pair of celebrity performers from China, May (Janet Hsieh) and Ray (George Young), who specialize in a sensory-overload performance art that looks like something you’d see outside a postmodern perfume boutique. They’ve won over a lot of the town residents, and there’s a referendum up for passage by the school board that would shift crucial funding that’s long gone to the Bread Factory over to May Ray.
Much of “A Bread Factory, Part One: For the Sake of Gold” is taken up with Dorothea and Elisabeth attempting to lobby the individual board members to their cause, which they do sitting around in their modest kitchens and on their scuffed furniture. The beauty of this small-beer backstage political battle is that it’s Wang’s witty way of taking the temperature of a community.
In addition to the mostly recalcitrant board members, we meet people like Jan (Glynnis O’Connor), who runs the local newspaper with a wry disdain for press-release journalism, or Max, the budding teenage reporter who works for her (played, in a striking performance, by Zachary Sayle, who evokes the vibrant vulnerability of Lucas Hedges), or his mother, Elsa (Nana Visitor), who after the Bread Factory’s opening-night performance of Euripides’ “Hecuba” says to Greta, “I thought there would be more people — it was such a hit in the Renaissance,” or the delectable ancient thespian Sir Walter (Brian Murray, in one of his final roles), who lives in a refined aristocratic theater world that you start to realize, around the time he recounts a talk he had with Anton Chekhov, is mostly in his mind, or Jean Marc (Philip Kerr), the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Sir Walter has resented for 50 years, ever since he got a bad review from him.
These are people who all flow into the world of the Bread Factory. But the center’s main threat, May Ray, isn’t just a vulgar enterprise with mysterious corporate backing; it’s a kind of cult. At the school-board meeting that provides the climax of “Part One,” the sinister May Ray manager, Karl (Trevor St. John), brings in a bona fide movie star, a Tom Cruise-meets-James Franco scruffy hunk named Trooper Jaymes (Chris Conroy), to testify, and the whole time he’s reading from a script. The question that hangs in the air is: Will the grass-roots culture of Checkford be replaced by prefab culture? And if so, how many people will care? The movie is firmly on the side of local arts, yet it has the nerviness to hint at the following notion: that the Bread Factory may matter mostly to the women who ostensibly run it for the good of everyone else.
“A Bread Factory, Part Two: Walk With Me a While” is organized around that performance of “Hecuba,” for which Dorothea and Greta spontaneously recruit a local waitress, Teresa (Jessica Pimentel), to portray Hecuba’s daughter. It’s here that we witness what community theater is really about. The word “local” has become a progressive buzzword, and there are of course objective good reasons to patronize local businesses or seek out local food (it’s fresh and nutritious and tasty). But if you live in a small town and go to see your local performance of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” you don’t necessarily need to pretend that it’s as good as the one you might see on a trip to New York. You’re witnessing the creative expression and joy of your friends and neighbors. And that’s priceless. That’s part of what art is.
The performance of “Hecuba,” led by Greta in the title role, is powerful in a way that’s just plainspoken enough to believe, and the drama of Hecuba enduring the ritual sacrifice of her daughter, Polyxena (played by Teresa), becomes an analogue of the potential death of the Bread Factory. At the same time, the movie starts to sprawl out in more random, let’s-try-it-on directions. A bunch of tourists get off a bus and launch into a musical number about the historical charms of Checkford (“The oldest parking lot in America…designed by Benjamin Franklin!”). The main café, which had been an oasis of calm, evolves into an impromptu stage in which characters get up to tap dance — but each in his or her own sealed-off psychological space, a symbol of what mobile phones, and digital interaction in general, is doing to us. It’s a pinch of Ionesco tossed into the “Guffman” soap opera.
In the same way that one wonders if a place like the Bread Factory can keep its doors open, it’s fair to ask whether there’s an audience for a movie like “A Bread Factory.” It opens today in two theaters in New York and Los Angeles, and though it’s a hard sell, I’m tempted to say that the film is too good to fall by the wayside. Yet rather than binge-watching all four hours of it in a theater, even many of those who are drawn to it may prefer to experience it at home, where they can relax into its rhythms. As a filmmaker, Patrick Wang is a puckishly high-minded humanist spellbinder, and the four hours of “A Bread Factory” fly by. Yet you also feel the hours pass in a good way, because they add up to something: a meditation on the side of the U.S. heartland we almost never see in the movies — the side that’s struggling, in a merciless world, to hold onto its heart.