Kulap Vilaysack is my best and sweetest friend. At least, that’s how it feels after getting to know her over hundreds of Who Charted? episodes, thanks to the intimate, conversational nature of podcasting. If there was ever any darkness or protective privacy to the boisterous, big-hearted comedy writer on that show it was whenever she found herself talking about her family, especially her relationship with her mother. Vilaysack’s first feature film as a director grew out of that familial darkness – a documentary about her family tree that she’s been talking about completing for years and years, one that I feel like I have a person investment in as a loyal listener to her podcast. Now that Origin Story has finally landed legitimate distribution on Amazon Prime, I find myself struggling to divorce that emotional investment in Kulap’s story and her personal well-being from a nagging thought that what’s onscreen isn’t entirely well executed as a movie. I don’t know that the filmmaking itself is especially strong in Origin Story, but the story it tells is still emotionally rattling throughout for me. It’s a little difficult to worry about how the film’s framing could be more interesting, or its editing could be tightened, when your foremost thought is “Why won’t my best and sweetest friend stop crying?”
Weirdly enough, I wouldn’t readily recommend this documentary to comedy nerds who only know Vilaysak through her tangential relationships with institutions like Comedy Bang Bang & Seeso. There are a few famous comedians who drop by as friends, only referenced by first names, but they’re mostly there to offer teary-eyed emotional support for what amounts to a bravely public act of self-therapy. Origin Story is much more likely to satisfy fans of twisty family-drama docs like Three Identical Strangers or Stories We Tell, folks for whom “a good story” means “a good movie.” Kulap Vilaysack’s search for the truth of her own birth’s circumstances is a good story, although a traumatic one. When she was 14-years-old she found herself caught between her parents during an argument and her mother asked “Why are you defending him? He’s not your real dad.” It’s a revelation that sat heavy on her heart for two decades before she decided to investigate who her biological father is (with a documentary crew in tow). The answers are easy to find, but not so easy to swallow, as Kulap travels across Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Laos (her parents’ home country) to try to make sense of the four adults who raised her and the one who didn’t. Themes of physical & emotional abuse, war refugee immigration, and the importance of self-mythology arise from her travels as the story she’s always all been told about her childhood unravels, resulting in a flood of tears from everyone who appears onscreen (and, presumably, everyone watching in the audience).
As interesting as the story is and as emotionally invested as I am in Kulap’s well-being, I can’t say with confidence that this is a great film on its own merits. It’s at least fifteen minutes overlong and its tone (understandably) slips into the maudlin piano flourishes & Hallmark sentimentality of something far below the talent of its creator. There’s also a distinct reality TV quality to its interview format & establishing shots that recall the exact clichés Vilaysak parodied in her comedy show Bajillion Dollar Propertie$. Origin Story follows a serviceable template to deliver a personal, heartfelt story, but it’s a shame to see someone so creative waste an opportunity to experiment with form, even if she is personally close to the content. In terms of craft, the best sequences of Origin Story are the animated flourishes that lean into the comic book aesthetic hinted by the title. Storybook illustrations & handdrawn-style ink animations bring to life childhood memories & stories of her parents’ political crises before her birth in fantastic detail. It took years to complete the documentary and get it before an audience, but it almost feels like Origin Story’s true, natural format would be as a graphic novel that hasn’t yet arrived. I’m happy that Kulap was able to complete the project the way she wanted to, but also curious what it would be like to see a graphic artist completely translate the documentary into a longform comic book format – especially since those animated sequences where it’s strongest.
A lot has changed since Origin Story wrapped production, most of which I’m only aware of because I follow these comedians’ professional lives too closely. Kulap no longer cohosts Who Charted?. Her dog Rocky, who is heavily featured in the film, has sadly passed away. She’s also directed, produced, and organized more projects than ever before (including a television show that has already come and gone in the span of this film being completed). As a standalone work divorced from Kulap’s professional persona, Origin Story is emotionally rattling but a little creatively stilted. As a public act of personal self-therapy, however, it seems to have lifted a weight off her heart that has freed her to do more & better work. Part of me wishes that final product were a little finer tuned, but mostly I’m just happy for my best and sweetest friend that the work is completed and in the past.