As its title promises, Bo McGuire’s Socks on Fire opens with a shot of socks burning on a clothes line. Symbolic of what’s to come, it sets the tone for the emotional carnage inflicted on his own family in Alabama. Documenting the fallout in the wake of its matriarch’s death, Socks on Fire illuminates the darkness behind its happy family portrait.
But first, McGuire rewinds to revisit the nostalgia of how things used to be. Using precious home videos, we see the family gathered by the Christmas tree, the kitchen and engaged in other bonding activities. But this cohesive family unit becomes disrupted when McGuire’s beloved grandmother dies without a will. Though she verbally gifted the family home to her son John, his homophobic sister Sharon makes it her mission to prevent him from receiving his due inheritance.
As the nephew of these embattled siblings, McGuire tells the story from his perspective, returning home to understand the growing rift in his once happy family. While he isn’t directly involved in the family feud, we soon realize the personal impact of Uncle John and Sharon in his life. In the case of the former, their shared homosexuality establishes a natural kinship. Meanwhile, Sharon was McGuire’s favorite relative until she similarly shunned him for his non-traditional lifestyle. As McGuire tries to comes to terms with this betrayal, he becomes an integral piece of the puzzle.
While bigotry and hate are central to the film, McGuire approaches it with equal parts humor. As the captivating narrator, the Southern lilt in his voice is by turns portentous and jocular. And with his confident strut and sardonic glances towards the camera, he truly becomes the star of the show.
Indeed, McGuire’s personality epitomizes the notion of laughing through your tears. And he applies this logic to the elegantly produced reenactments, particularly in the casting of the central villain. In a cheeky jab at Sharon’s conservatism, he casts a man to play her role in the dramatized scenes. Especially considering Sharon’s disgust at John’s affinity for drag, it’s a brilliant send up of her narrow worldview.
In that regard, Sharon’s own perspective is notably missing among the various insightful interviews from family and friends. While convincing evidence is provided for the motivations behind her malicious actions, her voice would have provided a more fulsome picture of the situation. Regardless, Socks on Fire remains an affecting study in familial trauma and the healing nature of queer pride. As such, it’s a touching example of the therapeutic power of documentary filmmaking, for both its subjects and the audience alike.