‘World’s Largest’ more than the sum of its parts

“World’s Largest” was the latest film to air as part of WCU’s Southern Circuit Film Series at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 1. It is a documentary that follows directors Amy Elliott and Elizabeth Donius as they tour the U.S. to witness 58 small towns’ individual claims to the “world’s largest” something.

These icons, often taking the form of large statues, are built and retained by each of these towns in order to attract tourism and as well as to host yearly and seasonal events for the towns’ residents. Everything from a giant peanut, strawberry, and egg to an enormous buffalo, cow, and turkey can be found and paid homage to at these various locations around the U.S., particularly in the Midwest. 

The film places a strong interest on the town of Soap Lake, Wash., however, with bits and pieces of the other 58 locals and interviews inter-spaced between. Like many of the small towns  that are featured, Soap Lake is struggling financially; many of its buildings are vacant and empty—or what one resident describes as being no more than “a ghost town.” Soap Lake’s project is to build the world’s largest lava lamp, an idea that first came from the fact that their foamy mineral lake of water, Soap Lake itself, is lying directly over a thick layer of lava. 

While the 4-year project is profiled efficiently and interwoven with wonderful interviews with many of the other towns’ humorous residents, it bares mentioning that the remaining 57 locations get lost throughout the course of the documentary. True, each of the other town’s “world’s largest” something is shown and explained—whether described as being birthed from a town’s legend or tradition—but too many of these icons can easily be confused amongst themselves. It’s likely that the world’s largest buffalo, which belongs to Jamestown, N.D., might easily be mismatched in viewers’ minds with the world’s largest turkey, which belongs to Frazee, Minn.

 Viewers are probably going to walk away from “World’s Largest’ with an idea that these icons exist somewhere in the U.S., true, but will most likely not remember the names of the towns to which they actually belong.

It’s also worth noting that the film and recording style that Elliott and Donius use for “World’s Largest” is questionable and even unreliable: a few instances of the film have the camera shaking visibly, or a clear view of an object that is on screen may not be given to the audience at other instances. The film’s color tint is also a bit off as well: most everything, for some reason, has a shade of yellow in its appearance.

But while these problems may distract those viewers that were hoping for a more artful and beautiful film such as Southern Circuit Film’s “Surviving Hitler: A Love Story”, the mood and themes that accompany “World’s Largest”—of the everyday man in an everyday small town trying to just make it—actually fit the sub-quality of the filming itself. While it may resemble a home video in some aspects, “World’s Largest” never fails to draw sympathy or laughter from the audience.

The subject of humor for the film is surprising given the context in which “World’s Largest” finds the towns’ residents, particularly those of Soap Lake. Many of the inhabitants joke about their idea of building this huge lava lamp: one man lists off all the problems and technical difficulties such a project will have, some of which seem impossible, and then nonchalantly says that they are no more than “minor technical problems.” And later an elder complains that she feels “people should come for our baths, not lava lamps,” which quickly draws a laugh from the audience.

Donius and Elliott’s ability to capture these humorous moments while interviewing the residents should be noted and can be viewed throughout the whole of the documentary. More than any other response garnered from the audience was indeed laughter.  

“World’s Largest” is the type of documentary that is more than the sum of its parts. The filming quality is sub-par, and it is often hard to tell in which town Donius and Elliott may be in at points. But the film’s mission of making viewers aware of how hard it is for small towns to just get by financially on a day-to-day basis is largely obtained.

 The struggle of Soap Lake shows how one community was able to rise above some perceived impossibilities and come away in the end of four years as being successful. It’s a story that’s both believable and inspirational, told in a way that gives the mood of a happy, humorous, if muddied, family get-together for audiences. In that particular context, “World’s Largest” may very well be one of the strongest documentaries of its kind.