Heather Courtney's personal, journal-like Where Soldiers Come From doesn't get us any closer to comprehending the magnitude of the conflicts the United States has involved itself in over the past decade, but in its own manner of accomplished modesty, it aims for the arguably more important task of understanding what these wars have come to mean to the people fighting them -- the soldiers having gone (and still gone) abroad, and the citizens supporting them in their absence and (sometimes even more difficult) presence. $20,000 and college tuition support is enough to lure a tightly knit circle of Michigan friends to join the National Guard after high school, a decision they'd likely alter if they knew what they'd be in for (says one, "fucking stupid"). Courtney, a fellow Michigan native who wanted to counter stereotypes of small town America, follows these young men stateside and abroad, from their training to eventual deployment and return home. A family member likens their posse to the characters of The Deer Hunter, although tragedy here is of the long-term, low-key brand; lingering traumas, silent brain injuries, and the damning realization by many that they still don't know what to do with their lives.
What Where Soldiers Come From lacks in distinction it makes up for in heartfelt sincerity, although it acts - if only incidentally - as an expose of military incompetence. (A standout moment of zen: soldiers are briefed via PowerPoint with information that hasn't been updated in over four years, and their instructor can hardly pronounce Hamid Karzai, let alone verify if he's still president.) Director Courtney's self-consciousness about the meaning of it all lends the film a distinctively picturesque beauty (better natural scenery couldn't be asked for, from the abandoned building that functions as a graffiti art gallery to the lighthouse that overlooks Lake Superior) that's at once engaging and slightly distracting from the core of the matter. Functionality is the key word here: some combination of public funding mandates and deliberately overly-assessible cinema renders Where Soldiers Come From both astute and slightly vacant. The film can't help but feel unfinished, but perhaps it might've lent more privacy to these individual's demons (the difference between looking and seeing) and found more cause in their roots.