We reviewed as many of this year’s festival films as we were able to see at scheduled critics’ screenings.
If you thought life was difficult for Rick and Isla on the streets of Casablanca, you haven’t seen Samia (Nisrin Erradi). Pregnant, unemployed, homeless and alone, she wanders the Moroccan capital looking for a job and a place to stay. She finds them when recently widowed Abla (Lubna Azabal) and her 8-year-old daughter reluctantly take her in, allowing her to live with them temporarily and help with their bakery.
With methodical and muted, but tender, direction by first-timer Maryam Touzani, who penned the socially relevant screenplay, Adam is a reminder that the unlikeliest of relationships can change a life forever. It’s also a reminder that the Florida Film Festival’s most emotionally powerful movies are increasingly the product of international female directors. This one is a must-see.
After So Many Days
Jim Hanft and Samantha Yonack are newlyweds. If that weren’t enough pressure, they’re also in a band. More precisely, they ARE the band. And things aren’t going well. So they launch a unique promotion: They will play one show a day for an entire year.
Even better – or worse, it turns out – they will direct a documentary chronicling their adventure. But while their journey has something to say about the human condition and the music industry, it makes for tedious, self-indulgent cinema. At a low point in the low-budget tour, Hanft remarks, “Our time could be better served not doing this.” Sadly, despite the couple’s talent and ambition, the film makes that obvious.
The feature is accompanied by a short doc, Broken Orchestra, about the dismal state of music education in Philadelphia schools. Shot beautifully in ambitiously long tracking shots, director Charlie Tyrell makes a fatal mistake: He fails to include a single scene of a child playing or even discussing music.
Following an accident that confines Javi to a wheelchair, his friend David becomes his caregiver. Alone together at David’s country house, paranoia, claustrophobia, animosity and guilt eat away at them until there is little left. Misery meets The Shining.
If the enjoyable unpleasantness of the Midnight films is your bag, the Spanish-language Amigo might be your new best friend. But don’t let that odd endorsement scare those of you who eschew the festival’s grosser offerings, for this high-brow mashup of drama and horror (with a drop of dark humor) is fueled by an almost unbearable stillness and an unexpectedly unique sense of the macabre. It’s also seemingly buoyed by the real-life friendship of its creators: actors Javier Botet and David Pareja (better known as comedians) and director Óscar Martín, who know how to ring every ounce of tension from the bare-bones script that they wrote together and filmed in just one week.
Predicting which feature films you will like is a difficult – some say presumptuous – endeavor. But, to paraphrase festival guest Joe Bob Briggs, that task becomes pert near impossible when we’re talking about shorts.
That’s especially true for the animated block, which is often more than the sum of its parts. Adding up the individual “fresh” and “rotten” ratings for the 16 movies – eight of which are five minutes or less – seems pointless. So I’ll simply say that if you have relished the animated block in the past and enjoy cracking open the brains of the industry’s up-and-coming artists, take this unique collection of styles, mediums and subjects for a spin. (This is the American-made block. International animated shorts comprise a separate block.)
The most satisfying – from both a storytelling and craft standpoint – are the opening film (The Opposites Game, a philosophical exercise in stop-motion, mixed media and collage) and Destination: Unknown. The latter is a passion project from director Ethan Wellin, who took five years to craft his stop-motion sci-fi tale. (Solaris meets claymation.)
The other films are hit or miss, but even a couple of the less (narratively) accessible ones deserve respect, such as the strangely beautiful, abstract Okami and The Coin. (The latter, in Mandarin, is Siqi Song’s felt follow-up to her Oscar-nominated Sister.) And The Message From Space (about seemingly benevolent aliens), with a more structured narrative, grounds the program nicely.
Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there wasn’t enough happiness and light here. Though Umbilical (about domestic abuse), Walt, Doll Story and Hudson Geese (the latter three containing themes of animal abuse and death) can’t be completely dismissed, their brutality is palpable. So by the arrival of the final film, If Anything Happens I Love You (a well-crafted take on gun violence), you might find yourself emotionally shaken, and not always in a good way. (Don’t bring the kids!)
I commend these filmmakers for their craft. But I hope your life is already filled with joy, for you’ll find little in this program.
Born Into the Gig
“There’s no birthright to this,” legendary singer-songwriter Bill Withers tells us in Born Into the Gig, one of the festival’s five music-themed feature documentaries. His daughter, Kori, would agree, as she both embraces and struggles with her father’s legacy. The same goes for the doc’s other subjects: Chris Stills (Stephen Stills’ son), Ben and Sally Taylor (James Taylor and Carly Simon’s children) and Skip Marley (Bob Marley’s grandson and Ziggy’s nephew).
Though directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner – channeling master documentarian Barbara Kopple – don’t exactly reinvent the genre, their film rarely hits a false note. And the simple premise slowly morphs into an enjoyable, honest and occasionally prophetic examination of what it takes to follow in the familial footsteps of giants.
Dani, a nine-minute animated documentary from director Lizzy Hogenson, accompanies the feature. Its stop-motion puppets might be soft, but its story isn’t.
If I had a dime for every time “heart in the right place” is used to describe a festival film, I could pay for that second screen the Enzian wants (and needs). Well, with apologies to the cliché police, that phrase is perfect for Drought. That means, as you’ve probably already guessed, that almost everything else about this dramedy misses the mark.
That’s sad because novice co-directors and co-stars Hannah Black and Megan Petersen – the latter giving the best performance – offer a nice premise. It’s so nice that they got support from Jay and Mark Duplass, as executive producers. It’s the tale of two sisters and their autistic brother (Owen Scheid) whose mother is arrested for selling pot out of her Yummy Tummy Treats ice-cream truck. While mom is in the slammer, they and a friend (Drew Scheid) abscond with the van, embarking on a dysfunctional family odyssey. But unlike Homer’s Odysseus, this film never makes it home, metaphorically.
18 to Party
I remember the summer of 1984. Like most of the characters in 18 to Party, I was in the middle of my junior-high years and spent my evenings yelling obscenities at my friends, gossiping about suicides of local teenagers, trying to sneak into music venues and debating recent UFO sightings.
Um, wait. Scratch that. That was nothing like my childhood. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t relate to writer-director Jeff Roda’s coming-of-age dramedy. Sure, there are moments of John Hughes charm in this simple, real-time tale of kids waiting for a nightclub to open. And at least three actors (Tanner Flood, Alivia Clark and James Freedson-Jackson) bear future watching. But there’s just too little joy, humor, originality or entertainment in this dimly lit, low-budget slice-of-lifer. And like the camera’s depth of field, the screenplay is a tad shallow.
“8X Real” Shorts Program
The documentary shorts program is always one of the festival’s best, but programmers have outdone themselves this year. Featuring eight mini-docs with a variety of subjects, styles and tones, this is one of the most emotionally impactful and well-crafted groupings of films you could hope for.
The best are director Henry Roosevelt’s Sixth of June (about honoring history, specifically D-Day) and director Aaron Inman’s Grave Hands (about a Vietnamese man who answers a unique spiritual calling every day). While they are both worthy of Oscar nominations, the other six films are also top-notch, covering everything from personal obsession to prejudice to found-object art to abortion. There’s even a stop-motion examination of Confucianism and a quirky doc about drilling so deep that you reach Hell. And look for the brilliant bookending, which balances vastly different approaches to a similar subject and, in doing so, might just bring pro-choicers and pro-lifers together, if briefly. (The pro-choice one, Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa, is only available online. If you attend the Enzian screening, you can get a voucher to watch that film at home.)
“It is the tendency of America to forget the past,” we’re told in Sixth of June. You won’t forget these movies.
The Elephant Man
If you’ve never seen David Lynch’s masterpiece on the big screen, now is your chance, as the 1980 drama is the Closing Night Retro offering. This brilliantly askew bio-pic of Joseph Merrick (called John in the film) features haunting black-and-white cinematography, an indescribable Gothic vibe and indelible performances from Anthony Hopkins, John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft and especially John Hurt, whose emotionally jarring prosthetic makeup (by Christopher Tucker) prompted the creation of a new Oscar category.
Not often considered a horror film, The Elephant Man nevertheless illuminates more memorably than almost any other movie the horrors humans inflict on society’s outcasts.
Fandango at the Wall
We’ve all seen music documentaries that become so obsessed with their interviewees that they forget to play the actual music. Fandango at the Wall doesn’t make that mistake. That might make it tedious if you’re not a fan of son jarocha, a style of regional folk music and dance from Veracruz, Mexico, that incorporates Hispanic, indigenous and African traditions. But if you find its sweetness and cultural richness refreshing and can look past the film’s structural meanderings, there’s a lot to enjoy here. In addition, director Varda Bar-Kar mostly avoids political clichés, instead offering an honest discussion of immigration, poverty and national identity – all framed by a unique concert straddling the metal wall dividing Tijuana from California.
The feature is preceded by director Julia Jansch’s My Father the Mover, a vibrant and infectious South African short about one man’s devotion to dance and his daughter’s reluctance to embrace her father’s passion.
If you learn one lesson from Landfall, Florida Film Festival alumna Cecilia Aldarondo’s second feature documentary after Memories of a Penitent Heart, it’s that Puerto Rico deserves better than it’s received from the United States government, its own leadership and Mother Nature. This is clearly an enormous topic warranting an exhaustive documentary, but Aldarondo instead focuses her essay-like lens on a handful of people enduring the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria.
“We try to erase the bad things, to set them aside,” one subject says. “[But] we can’t forget that we were left destitute.”
Moments like that shine a badly needed light on the quiet despair islanders are enduring, but Aldarondo’s spotlight is often too dim, too oblique to function as anything more than an intriguing but vague tone poem for Puerto Rico’s suffering.
Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles
For all the wonders of the arts, they are almost always limited to just two senses: sight and sound. Taste, smell and touch are usually absent. But that changed in 2018 with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Visitors to Versailles” exhibit, which featured not just traditional arts (painting, sculpture, tapestries, furniture, costumes and armor) but food. And director Laura Gabbert’s camera was there to capture it all, creating the most mouth-watering piece of cinema since Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Organized by eminent chef Yotam Ottolenghi, who brought together some of the greatest and most innovative dessert “architects” in the world, the smorgasbord was the envy of New York City and risked upstaging the 17th-centuryhistorical artifacts. Gabbert’s documentary, of course, can’t replicate the act of biting into the chocolate, jelly and cake creations. And you get just a vague sense of the smells that wafted through the grand halls of the Met for the occasion. (Where’s 1960’s Smell-O-Vision when you need it?) In addition, at just 75 minutes, the doc feels a bit rushed and underdeveloped. But the desserts – and the stories behind them – are delectable.
The Perfect Candidate
Maryam comes from a somewhat successful family of musicians and wedding singers. Though she’s a woman living in Saudi Arabia, that’s not enough for her. So she becomes a doctor. But even that doesn’t meet her expectations, so she decides, serendipitously, to run for municipal counsel. Initially without the support of her more conservative father and two sisters, Maryam struggles to gain respect in a nation unaccustomed to female leadership.
Not unlike her movie’s lead character, director Haifaa Al-Mansour is a trailblazer, becoming in 2012 the first Saudi woman to direct a feature. Not surprisingly, her new Arabic-language drama addresses religious fundamentalism and misogyny, but it’s rarely heavy-handed. It occasionally seems unfocused and flat, particularly in its performances and pacing. But it more than compensates for that with cultural import, which it contains in spades. And don’t be shocked if the emotional ending punches you in the gut.
Alex’s only friends are his college roommate, whom he dislikes, and his stuffed animal, the latter being a better conversationalist than the former, at least in Alex’s mind. In short, he’s having trouble matriculating. After another failed attempt to socialize (at a party held in a place nicknamed the “shithouse”), Alex unexpectedly bonds with Maggie, his dorm RA. Though she’s one year ahead of Alex in school and seemingly better adjusted, she too is emotionally vulnerable.
What ensues is neither as funny nor revelatory as first-time filmmaker Cooper Raiff surely intended. Merging mumblecore with coming-of-age dramedy, Raiff does manage to tap into some of the angst of the late-teen years while ambitiously serving as writer, producer, director, editor and star (alongside Dylan Gelula, who plays Maggie). But with a rambling structure and subpar craftsmanship, Shithouse smells too much like a low-budget debut film.
Shorts #1: “Grievances”
The festival has a tradition of naming its domestic shorts programs for songs by recently deceased singers. The honor has previously gone to Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Tom Petty, among others. This year’s honorees are more difficult to spot, but that makes it all the more fun to find them.
Shorts #1 is named “Grievances,” apparently for the Daniel Johnston song. A leading figure in outsider and alternative music, Johnston died last year at age 58. Though not all seven shorts in this block involve characters with the textbook definition of a “grievance,” they do focus on people searching for something different in their lives and within themselves.
The program begins and ends with comedies. Though the first film – the overly broad and unfunny Island Queen, staring Rachel Dratch of SNL fame – seems out of place, the block ends nicely with Daddio. Directed by and co-staring Casey Wilson, that latter short benefits from its chemistry between Wilson and the legendary Michael McKean, as a daughter and father coping (quirkily and awkwardly) with a recent family death.
Between the bookends are several good (but not necessarily great) offerings of various styles and subjects. Feeling Through offers a unique look at what it means to help the less fortunate; Little Chief is a slow-burn eye-opener a low-income Native-American teacher and her student; Union County painfully illustrates what a troubled young man must give up to stay sober; and Oh, Baby! lightens the mood (too much) with an offbeat take on a one-night stand. But it’s Black Goat (the lone foreign-language offering), directed by Tang Yi, that stands out, thanks to its unique snapshot of a Nepali girl in a Buddhist nunnery.
In the wake of COVID-19’s postponement or cancellation of most movie events, the Florida Film Festival’s shorts programs are extra valuable. That’s because the festival is one of the few in the world with Oscar accreditation in all three shorts categories: live-action, animated and documentary. In addition, this year’s event contains more shorts than ever (140), with more domestic, live-action blocks (five instead of the usual four). And you can watch almost all of them virtually. There’s never been a better time to get short.
Some Kind of Heaven
“You don’t have to go outside the Villages.”
It sounds like something Number Two would say in The Prisoner. But it’s actually a quote from a contented resident of the world’s largest retirement community: The Villages.
Yet not everything is perfect in “Florida’s friendliest hometown,” as director Lance Oppenheim, a Sunshine Stater and festival alumnus, brilliantly demonstrates in his feature debut. But that’s not so much an insult to the Villages as it is a startlingly intimate examination of the lives of human beings approaching their final years.
Highlighting the stories of a half-dozen residents of the community, Oppenheim’s doc, which is produced by Darren Aronofsky and the New York Times, is a masterclass in interviewing, editing and scoring. A tragicomic (though some would say depressing) combination of The Stepford Wives and an Errol Morris movie, it’s one of the best documentaries you’ll see this year at the Florida Film Festival, or anywhere.
On the southeast English coast in the early 1940s, curmudgeonly author Alice Lamb is holed up in her house, hiding from the war, the world and her broken heart. Her only joy is her writing, which debunks myths, legends and magic. Little does Alice realize she’s about to have her own mystical experience, courtesy of a young boy from London, whom she is forced to take in as part of the Blitz evacuation.
The debut film of Olivier Award-winning playwright Jessica Swale, Summerland takes some historical liberties and often wears its social message on its sleeve. But its period charm, tight screenplay and interesting story transcend its contrivances. It’s especially buoyed by Gemma Arterton’s great lead performance, memorable support from Gugu Mbatha-Raw and the legendary Tom Courtenay, and an emotional, metatheatrical vibe reminiscent of Atonement. (Summerland – synonymous with pagan heaven – even uses the same seaside cottage as Atonement. Heaven indeed.)