Jasper Mall (2020) [Slamdance Film Festival 2020]

When Victor Gruen invented the mall, it’s explained that he envisioned them being small metropolitans allowing people to commune and live. They became tax shelters and giant symbols of American consumerism until finally suffering slow deaths in the aughts. “Jasper Mall” is a somber and engaging tale of one of the last dying mega malls in America that is suffering a slow, painful death and is resuscitated, ironically, by the loyalty of its patrons and the sense of community that’s attracted to what was once a pantheon of consumerism.

Directors Bradford Thomason & Brett Whitcomb takes a long for a year in the life of a dying shopping mall in Jasper Alabama, as well as its patrons, and its tenants. With nostalgia for retro shopping malls at an all-time high, the film peels back the curtain to show the reality of the American mall and the individuals at the center of a rapidly changing culture. “Jasper Mall” watches like a movie from Jim Jarmusch, at times, as it meditates on the culture of consumerism and the bygone era of the mall.

Directors Thomason and Brett Whitcomb paint the picture vividly with long, still takes of the Jasper Mall, noticeably void of customers and regular patrons. As well, they feature a small variety of characters that roam the Jasper Mall. They brush past empty blocks of space that were once bustling shopping areas, as well as looks at what’s become an oddly attractive small little community that’s grown to love the vacant arena of skeletons that were once big chain stores. The biggest draw of “Jasper Mall” is Mike, the Mall’s resident janitor/security guard/manager/caretaker who walks around the Mall like a caretaker of a cemetery and archive.

He takes us on a grand tour of the mall, giving us insight in to past businesses, what the mall used to bring in terms of customers and what it attracts now. He has a special that makes his job very important, as he’s basically reserved himself to allowing the mall to serve as a bastion of safety and comfort to the elderly and homeless. The latter is never made any more apparent as Mike discusses how he opens the store before dawn to allow the homeless to seek warmth from the cold. Meanwhile the directors cut to a small group of elderly men that set up a dominoes game in the middle of the mall for literal hours. “Jasper Mall” switches perspectives consistently, following various characters around the mall as they realize it’s time to move on, experience new relationships, and just realize that the mall is no longer a draw for actual shoppers now with the specter of online shopping and automation lingering over everyone.

Some of the segments feel like padding including the carnival sequence a moment of conversation between two salon workers. However, there are some striking moments that keep the film from suffering, including the sad sequence of hold outs like a jewelry repairman and florist finally admitted defeat, and Mike giving us a tour of a huge, empty, dark stadium that once housed a “K-Mart.” It’s a shame that a once prominent culture is dead, but what’s even sadder is that large open voids are now desolate fulfilling zero purpose as America has yet to figure out how to move on and give new definition to places that promote human connection and interaction.

The Slamdance Film Festival runs every year from January 25th to January 31st.