Imagine that you’re 14 years old, your parents are constantly fighting and you find yourself frequently in the middle of one of their arguments. You’re still in your formative years and this kind of persistent angst is routine in your household. How would this inform how you looked at relationships? Now imagine that during one of the arguments, you’re bluntly told that the man who’s raised you, cared for you, and loved you is not your father. That the man who is your father abandoned you and would be a danger to you should you contact him. How would that shape how you approached trust with your family? How would that impact how you trusted yourself? More than just a hypothetical, this is the story of how Kulap Vilaysack found out the truth of her parentage. Nearly twenty years later, Vilaysack, a successful writer/showrunner (Bajillion Dollar Propertie$), actor (Parks and Recreation), and podcaster (Who Charted), turns the camera on herself as she investigates the story of her past in the documentary Origin Story. Starting out with the straight-forward intent of meeting her biological father, Vilaysack finds herself capturing a raw and emotional journey whose answers only create more questions.
Origin Story isn’t your typical straight-forward documentary. Tapping into the storytelling techniques Vilaysack understands as a content creator and storyteller, the audience is taken on a rollercoaster ride of emotion from the moment it begins. Using artwork, the audience is taken step-by-step through the unveiling of the truth and what Vilaysack remembers doing and feeling in the moments preceding and following. Amid the swirling purples, blues, and blacks, teenage Kulap reacts to the news from her mom, Bouaphet. Combined with her voiceover, it’s deeply affecting, but also distancing. The story is hers yet someone else’s, a cartoons, an animated figure, not her. To begin here, with this story in this way, signals how Vilaysack has distanced herself from this moment until now, when she’s confronting it. Moving forward, this animated story only appears a few more times, replaced by photos of her own childhood and that of her parents. The use of actual photos enables the protective wall to come down, though the reappearance from time-to-time of the animatics does hint at a recurring, persistent ache which may remain within Vilaysack. Despite the genial tone the beginning takes post-animation, Vilaysack is unafraid to capture the darker moments, as well. Sometimes that means capturing a breakdown on camera, showing her tearing apart her office in her rage and frustration. Other times it means using text bubbles to highlight a text conversation between herself and her mother. Those familiar with toxic relationships will instantly recognize and connect with Vilaysack’s pain. Later, there’s an incredible split-screen conversation between Vilaysack and her biological father which packs an emotional wallop as it removes the necessity of edits to denote who’s speaking, creates a sensation that the audience can’t look away from the conversation, and ensures that the audience recognizes the lack of trickery in the depiction. It’s an incredibly affecting moment – tender in its depiction of Vilaysack confronting a demon within, rending her absolutely exposed – largely because the audience can see the authenticity.
Though much of Origin Story takes place in a clear linear fashion, there are aspects which play with time. Interviewees seem to be wearing the same clothes in different parts of the film after other events have taken place, just a return to a previous time/place to present other aspects of a conversation. While this may initially disturb the flow of the narrative or detract from the reliability in other documentaries, within Origin Story, this frequently serves to enhance the subtext of the documentary. On the surface, Origin Story is about Vilaysack uncovering the truth of her parentage. Underneath, it’s a story of learning to trust again. One way this is highlighted to the audience is when the story of how her parents escaped from Laos in the 1970s using dialogue from both her mother and father, Saky, in a complimentary back-and-forth fashion as more animation is used to depict their tale. It’s a simple technique, but one which enables both Vilaysack and the audience to acknowledge how their stories line up, indicating a shared truth. From a technical perspective, doing this saves time rather than spending it hearing their individual versions and, from a narrative view, injects a sensation of parents telling their child about their own troubled youth. The words themselves may not heal Vilaysack’s wounds, but they can provide clarity and understanding previously missing.
From the outside looking in, Origin Story may appear laudatory for the life Vilaysack leads. She’s a successful content creator, in a loving marriage, and her inner circle contains several actors and comedians of note. But that’s not who Kulap Vilaysack sees herself as. As Origin Story comes to a close, it becomes ever more clear that she saw herself as the same 14-year old whose life shattered into pieces. Even with the several moments of pure joy Vilaysack savors as she connects with a part of her life previously unknown, there’s always a harbinger lingering on the edges of Origin Story, not of her own making. Strangely, this is what makes Origin Story simultaneously heart-wrenching and uplifting. Universally known, life is never certain nor absolute and the choices we make are predicated on the choices of others. We cannot go forward without understanding where we’ve been. In this way, Origin Story is exactly that for Kulap Vilaysack, a prelude for the rest of her life.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.