Collapsing nine months of filming into an impressionistic dusk-to-dawn ramble, through a post-Katrina New Orleans that radiates mischief, menace and good-natured debauchery, the gorgeous nonfiction meander Tchoupitoulas by brothers Bill and Turner Ross fuses two mostly bygone strains of documentary filmmaking: the city symphony, passing its focus like a baton from subject to subject; and the mondo movie, gawking unabashedly at excess and oddity.
There may not be a city in North America better suited to such a project than NOLA. As the brothers follow another set of brothers — young William, Bryan and Kentrell Zanders, turned loose to explore on their own with the filmmakers as their unseen, indulgent and possibly trouble-stirring company — the French Quarter and winding Tchoupitoulas Street become a kind of plein-air mixtape. The music morphs from jazz to hip-hop; strippers, street performers, drag queens, cops and carriage operators mingle in a nightworld of irresistible vitality.
It doesn't come as a surprise to find names among the credits here shared with Beasts of the Southern Wild, which also has a young, philosophically inclined subject — the movie often adopts pre-adolescent William's upward-tilted vantage point, that of a wonderstruck kid navigating a rowdy adult party — and has something of its mood of mythic exploration. But the movie captures above all the sense of wandering a carnival midway late at night, ready to tilt at any moment from magic to threat and back again. (It also made me hungry as hell for the Acme Oyster Bar.)
As a document of the city's ribald charms, seemingly lit by that orange-slice moon over the railroad yard the kids cross, Tchoupitoulas is rarely less than entrancing. As William says of the Quarter, "This is everything I hoped for! Naked pictures, clubs — you know what I mean?"
Part of The Belcourt's "Movies We Missed in 2012" series, the movie plays tonight through Saturday and Jan. 24. Watch the clip above, and see if this doesn't look like a weekend stay on Bourbon Street distilled to a 90-minute roux.