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Focus Features
Won’t you see his new movie?
WHAT'S UP, DOC?

Five documentaries about remarkable lives are this summer’s surprise hits

By Adam Epstein

In the summer, cinemas tend to be full of blockbusters and big franchise sequels. But this year the season has an unlikely star: the life story documentary.

Already, two documentaries have surpassed the $10 million mark at the US box office (the benchmark for a resounding commercial success among documentaries): Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the critically acclaimed documentary about children’s TV icon Fred Rogers, and RBG, the similarly lauded doc about longtime US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Both Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and RBG fall in the top 20 of the summer’s highest-grossing films. They’ve done so while playing in vastly fewer theaters than the average summer blockbuster (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which has grossed over $300 million in the US, for instance, is playing in almost 4,500 theaters; Won’t You Be My Neighbor is in less than 900, and RBG in a paltry 400). RBG has grossed more than $27,000 per theater, an average much greater than that of several major studio films, including Sicario: Day of the Soldado.

Two other documentaries are not far behind. Three Identical Strangers, the stranger-than-fiction true story of identical triplets separated at birth, made a staggering $34,000 per theater its opening weekend (June 29-July 1) in a very limited release. Whitney, the documentary about the life of the late American singer Whitney Houston, finished a respectable 11th in per-theater average last weekend. A fifth doc, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word—about, you guessed it, Pope Francis—has also done well on a per-theater basis and made an impression on critics.

In fact, all these documentaries are getting good reviews. At an impressive 89%, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word has the worst Rotten Tomatoes score of all five documentaries. The other four are all over 90%, with Won’t You Be My Neighbor? the highest at an astounding 99%.

Given the dour state of the world—and American politics in particular—it makes some sense that uplifting docs about brilliant and talented people would break through to audiences. The films about Rogers, Ginsburg, and Pope Francis are clearly framed as hopeful or inspiring—and parts of Whitney are too, though reviews have said the story of the talented singer’s descent into drug addiction is also heartbreaking. More enlightened than your average summer fare, these films offer a quieter alternative to the corporate garishness of blockbusters like Jurassic World 2 and Solo: A Star Wars Story.

If you’re looking for something powerful to watch this summer, there’s a great life story for every taste:

The heartwarming career retrospective (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?)

The other heartwarming career retrospective (RBG)

The stranger-than-fiction family mystery (Three Identical Strangers)

The raw, intimate look at the life of a music icon (Whitney)

The probing, enlightening study of a global leader (Pope Francis: A Man of His Word)