Be Good, Smile Pretty

Rating:

A Father Resurrected

Main Cast: Tracey Droz Tragos

Director: Tracey Droz Tragos

The death of a parent is heartbreaking. For some of us, it’s a devastating loss of our own past. For others, that death represents a different kind of loss – the loss of what might have been. For Tracey Droz Tragos, the death of her father when she was an infant left her with a lifetime of longing for a parent she could never know. Killed in Vietnam in 1969, Tracey’s father was all but erased from memory in an attempt to both give his daughter a “normal life” and for the rest of her family to try and move on from the tragedy. Unfortunately for everyone, it didn’t work. Fortunately for everyone, the adult Tracey realized that fact and took concrete steps to resurrect the memories of her father that had been so long buried. The result is the 2003 documentary Be Good, Smile Pretty.

In 2001, Tracey decided it was time to start asking questions. She wanted to know the man who was her father. This opened the floodgates to emotions stored away – sometimes literally – for thirty-two years. She wasn’t unaware that she would be causing people pain. Her mother, her adoptive father, her grandmother, aunt and uncle had grieved privately. To ask them to share that with her – and with a camera so she could document it all – was a tremendous burden, one which she did not ask lightly. Sympathetic to their tender memories, she trod very softly and slowly into the minefield that was the events of her father’s life and death.

Starting with her mother, the one with whom she clearly has the closest bond and the greatest trust, Tracey sets out to learn what she can of the man who met her only a single time, for five days in 1969. The first words her mother speaks about her father in Be Good, Smile Pretty come in a gush of tears as she remembers the awful day she was brought the news of his death. That is the first and foremost memory her mother has, and the first one she shares. The same is true for many of her relatives – they remember the horrible end first. The days, weeks, months and years that followed the death of Donald Glenn Droz. Only later do the stories of his life begin to come as well. Tracey has heard none of these stories. Her father is, to her, a blank. As people literally bring suitcases filled with memories down from their attics, Tracey starts to have an idea of what this man was like – what her father had been like in life.

The opening of Be Good, Smile Pretty states that nearly 20,000 Americans lost their fathers in Vietnam. Some, like Tracey, lost fathers they never got a chance to know. Families coped the best way they knew how – it was a time of enormous political upheaval, and those whose grief should have been utmost on the national agenda were sometimes looked upon with scorn. Families like Tracey’s coped by simply not speaking of Don. It was just too painful. As her grandmother said, these things happen in life and you have to move on. But none of them really had. Just mentioning his name brings floods of tears from every family member. As Tracey begins to know her father, those who had known and loved him when he was alive finally allow themselves to openly grieve his death.

Not only family members are involved in Tracey’s journey. She also goes to Don’s 35th Naval Academy class reunion, where she talks about him as a young man with those who knew him best. She talks to his friends from Vietnam who knew him as a soldier. She visits the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. with her mother and grandmother. She makes it her goal to fill in as much of that blank page in her life as she possibly can.

Each person she speaks with is affected by her quest and her questions. Nearly without exception, the men who served with her father cry at the memory of that time in their lives. There is no macho posturing, only sad, shaken men re-living a time when they lived every day knowing that they might not live to see home. Talking about Don brings up those memories, thirty-two years gone, and gives them life again. This may be a good thing; it may be a bad thing, depending on the man and his ability to heal. It is definitely a powerful statement about the horrors of combat and how it changes a person forever. Tracey isn’t looking to hurt people in Be Good, Smile Pretty – she’s only looking for her father. She knows that he shouldn’t be stored in an attic, even if it means bringing up painful memories. For the most part, hard as it may be, the people Tracey talks to seem glad to remember their past, to remember Don and give a little bit of him to his daughter. There is even catharsis for her family, as they are finally able to bring Don back into their lives and stop pretending their pain is gone – or never existed at all.

The story is powerful, and Be Good, Smile Pretty will make you cry. Maybe this is emotionally manipulative, but I don’t think that’s what Tracey set out to do. The fact that these memories elicit such strong emotion isn’t something she is prepared for, either. She goes through any number of phases during this relatively short film, anger, sadness, joy and grief all play out on her own personal stage. She shares it all with candor, but not always without difficulty. This isn’t an easy quest for her, and she doesn’t cover or hide her own pain. The entire film has an amateur look and feel. The interviews are all done with a very static camera and lots of visible microphones. The inserted photo, audio and video footage is effective, but choppy. The feel is of a home movie grown into something much more. It is remarkably captivating, like watching someone’s video diary as they discover that the journey they embarked upon is not the journey they thought they were taking. It takes us all back to a time when young men were dying by the dozens every day, young wives were praying not to find an officer on their doorstep and mothers all over the country prayed every night for their sons, fighting a war they didn’t understand in a place they could barely find on a map. Not so different from today, in many ways. Which is one of the reasons the film resonates so strongly still. Some day thirty-two years from now there will be other Traceys, looking for fathers they never knew and finding them only through devastated families and those who fought next to them and watched them die.

Be Good, Smile Pretty takes us through the journey of one woman to discover the father she could never know. It also reminds us of all the others out there who suffered the same fate. That Tracey Droz Tragos managed to put together the emotional footage she gathered as she searched for memories of her father is quite an achievement all on its own. That it is captivating watching is even more so – the amateur feel of the production gives it an aura of innocence that captures both a young woman longing for a parent and a time when our country was just learning of the price it would pay for the war it was fighting. Be Good, Smile Pretty is a stellar example of the lasting effects of war on future generations. Since it would appear that we didn’t learn quite enough from her past, perhaps we can learn a little something from Tracey’s present.

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