If you're familiar with documentarian Ross McElwee's earlier films (SHERMAN'S MARCH, TIME INDEFINITE), watching this one is like fondly catching up with an old friend. The latest, long-awaited chapter in his series of autobiographical cinematic memoirs, BRIGHT LEAVES finds McElwee (who currently lives in Brookline and teaches film at Harvard) traveling back to his home state of North Carolina. There, his cousin (a film enthusiast with an archive of rare prints in his home) screens BRIGHT LEAF for him, a justly forgotten Gary Cooper melodrama from 1950 that may have been based on McElwee's great grandfather, a tobacco baron who created the Bull Durham brand but was eventually run out of business by his more famous rivals.

McElwee uses this discovery as a jumping off point for a mostly free-form essay about his family's forgotten place in the tobacco industry and the lingering effects of that industry on small town North Carolina. He also interviews old friends (the audience practically cheered when the fiesty, outspoken Charlene, a constant figure in his earlier work, appeared on screen) and cancer patients of his deceased physician father about the presence of smoking in their lives. However, this isn't an anti-smoking PSA--only one scene feels a little preachy. Instead, tobacco is simply a focal point, interspersed with updates about McElwee's life, his now teenaged son, reminiscences about his past via home movie footage, and the occasional detour like an unforgettable interview with eccentric film theorist Vlada Petric and another with ancient BRIGHT LEAF co-star Patricia Neal.

No more focused than his earlier films and maybe less essential than them, BRIGHT LEAVES is nonetheless a delightful new chapter. McElwee's highly personable style, best exemplified by his wry, incessant narration and sense of humor, influenced a generation of documentarians, but he still does it masterfully. At its best, the film is like a Southern, nonfiction equivalent to NOSEY PARKER, exploring a region not well-known to anyone outside its borders. McElwee was present at the screening I attended, and in a Q-and-A afterward, he emphasized how important it was for him to shoot this on film instead of video and show it on a big screen. Check it out if you're able to and you'll see why.