We meet Martin Stone on the eve of his 70th birthday: grey hair, goofy smile, his facial expressions vacillating between a childish joy and a more distant sadness. Originally from the U.S., he now shares a dirt-cheap Mile End apartment with a revolving cast of roommates in Montreal. In the mid-1960s, Stone left a lucrative ad agency job in New York and hopped a bus westwards to California with Hog Farm, a hippie commune founded by peace activist Wavy Gravy. He left behind his wife Suzanne, who remarried Alan, a Vietnam war vet, but brought his two young daughters, Debbie and Jacqueline, to criss-cross the country in search of freedom, love, and new paradigms for living.
Near the beginning of Stone Story, a documentary that straddles Stone’s 70th and 71st years, he addresses the camera: “Close your eyes and pretend that the world does not contain poverty, racism, inequality, injustice,” he says. “If by living the way I do, is taking a step in that direction, then I’m going to go for it.”
If Stone’s story originally epitomized a kind of racial and class privilege—“Look at me, not conforming to middle-class expectations”—by 2016, its meaning has shifted, and his initial choice to eschew normalcy has given way to inescapable familial and economic consequences. Acutely aware of this, filmmaker Jean-André Fourestié centres the film not on Stone, but on the broader family dynamic—what the stone rolled over in its quest to gain no moss. While his ex-wife and daughters own homes in the U.S., where they visit, eat meals, and celebrate together, Stone rents, living paycheque to paycheque, working part-time as an overnight security guard at a soulless condo in the burbs. Stone’s communal lifestyle in Mile End may now have as much to do with economic necessity as a desire to live out hippie precepts.
While she reminisces about meeting—and dancing with— Janis Joplin at Woodstock, Stone’s eldest daughter Debbie seems the most torn when it comes to her father’s choices. She recounts a story on the bus where the group had run out of food and money. They pulled over at a Jack in the Box, and sent Debbie and Jacquie inside to beg for food. When the girls returned with bags of cheeseburgers and fries, the adults gobbled them up—barely remembering to feed the kids who’d secured the meal in the first place. “They treated us like little people living grown-up lives,” Debbie tells us. “But we weren’t adults—we were children.” At one point, Debbie concedes that it may all have been worth it for the memories; at the same time, though, she calls her stepfather Alan Katz “dad” more often than she does Martin.
For his part, Stone asserts that he wanted to show his kids that a different value system was possible. (And, to his credit, according to a short pre-screening introduction Fourestié gave at Cinema Parc in Montreal, Stone wanted his family to feel free to share their unadorned perspectives on his great hippie experiment.) Intentions aside, though, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what comprises Stone’s alternative value system. Communal meals? Jam sessions? Smoking pot on a balcony, surrounded by plants? Stone is open with his friendships, with his home, with his overtures of a better tomorrow—but his friendships seem fleeting, his family relationships, strained. It’s easy to see what Stone has lost—deeper relationships, financial security—but it’s harder to see what he’s gained. Occasionally, his naivete borders on the painful-to-watch—he mentions that he never locks his door, for example, and then proceeds to dox his address in stages over the course of the film.
In the latter third of the film, we learn that Stone’s youngest daughter is struggling with an illness that has threatened her life. Stone, unsure if he can handle seeing her sick, hasn’t visited her in years. Meanwhile, Debbie’s years of hard work have finally paid off, and she’s purchased a rural hobby farm in Canada with a new partner—bringing her physically closer to her father, whom she visits. Martin, who has rented the same apartment for 40 years—along with an estimated one hundred roommates—has just received a notice of lease non-renewal from his landlord. After a quick catch-up, Martin presents Debbie with the notice. She holds it in her hands for a moment, folds it up and gives it back. While she says, later, that she finds her father’s situation “sad,” she isn’t willing to step in and fix his problems. Her father has abdicated his familial responsibilities her whole life, and she’s done picking up the slack.
Stone Story’s pacing is a bit erratic, its conclusion lacking, its parallel storylines meander side by side, interacting only clumsily. It’s not a great film—in fact it’s easy to see how Fourestié could have cut it differently, interposing narration instead of relying on parallels to make narrative points—but it is a profoundly sad film, with a profoundly sad takeaway: the economic realities of capitalism are inescapable, and they catch up to us whether we want them to or not.
andrea bennett's writing has been published in the Atlantic, the Walrus, and Maisonneuve. Her first poetry book, Canoodlers, came out with Nightwood Editions in 2014.