Festival Review: IFF Boston Screenings

Though my various work commitments kept me from experiencing the full festival, I was able to take in four films at the Independent Film Festival of Boston, and they were all varying levels of good! I’m kind of behind on blogging so I decided to compile all my festival reviews together into one post, so they’ll be short.

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First up was my number one priority, Obvious Child. Based on the short of the same name, the film stars Jenny Slate as Donna, an aspiring stand-up comedian who loses her boyfriend and her job back-to-back. After wallowing for a bit she allows herself a one-night stand with a cute but fairly strait-laced boy named Max (Jake Lacey), whom she meets at the bar where she performs. A short time later she realizes she is pregnant, and decides to get an abortion as she is not ready (personally or financially) to be a parent. In the weeks before the procedure she renews contact with Max and they sort of think about dating, but she struggles with telling him about the results of their first night together.

Obvious Child is basically the kind of pro-choice romantic comedy I wanted it to be- it’s just a genuinely enjoyable, relatable film with a hilarious performance from Slate and a lot of ladycentric positivity. It did a good job of stretching the premise of the short to feature-length without overcomplicating the story. The script treats abortion as a regular thing, something many women experience (in fact, all three main women characters in this movie have had it), and it isn’t seeking to become an “issue” movie. It’s just part of the story. Essentially, it’s all a showcase for Slate, who is so so so so funny and I hope she has an amazing comedy career. A neat bit of trivia about this movie is I know someone who was an extra! They filmed one of the later scenes at the Planned Parenthood where my friend Sammy used to work, and she’s in the background of some shots. Cool, huh?

 

dear white people

Two nights later I caught my second-most priority film, Dear White People. Set at a fictional Ivy League school, the film tracks the events leading up to a so-called “riot” at an on-campus party through the eyes of four black students. Sam (Tessa Thompson) is an aspiring filmmaker whose notorious radio “Dear White People” mocks contemporary race relations. Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is a quiet writer seeking a place to fit in- feeling cut off from both the gay and black communities but hoping to make friends at the school newspaper. Coco (Teyonah Paris), who doesn’t accept Sam’s aggressive stance, dreams of being a reality star, and works to create a persona to make herself more viable. Troy (Brandon P Bell) is a popular poli-sci major who wants to try comedy writing, but is pushed into more distinguished extracurricular activities by his father (Dennis Haysbert), the dean of students. Their fates become intertwined at an ill-conceived party held by an elite house full of white assholes, technically “hip hop” themed but really just an excuse for white people to mimic black stereotypes and in some cases don blackface.

Biting in its satire and liberally sprinkled with both regular jokes and meta-jokes, Dear White People is a telling glimpse into race relations on American campuses while also being a fantastic film in general. It’s funny and fast-paced, a little bit cheesy at the right parts and subtle in its analysis of the many intersections of race, class, gender, history, and prejudice. The protagonists are navigating a tricky environment, trying to find where they feel comfortable while understanding the pre-conceived notions held by their peers as well as their elders. The film is about all those deep-seated assumptions we all carry with us, so deeply ingrained in our society we don’t always realize they’re there. Writer/director Justin Simien tackles these issues with wit and heart, and an interesting juxtaposition of under- and over-statement. I loved the cast (who are all insanely attractive), the script, and the style, and came out of it thinking about my own experiences in college and those of my friends of color. Ultimately I loved it, but recognized that I’m not really who this movie is for. Which is actually great.

ALSO! I have to mention how excited I was to see Malcolm Barrett in a supporting role. He is one of my (many) favorite things about Better Off Ted.

 

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I followed up Dear White People almost immediately with Ti West’s The Sacrament, a big shift in both tone and cast diversity since it’s mostly about white dudes. This found-footage thriller stars Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, and Kentucker Audley as VICE journalists investigating a mysterious cult that began in the United States but moved to an unknown jungle location (presumably in South America) to build a utopian commune. Their leader (Gene Jones), known only as “Father”, is an intelligent Southern gentleman who preaches tolerance, togetherness, and living off the land. Their world seems like a paradise- indeed, many of their inhabitants call it just that- but, as with all cults I guess, there’s a seedy underbelly waiting to be exposed.

Generally employing the found-footage angle well (except for one big misstep at the end that really bothered me), The Sacrament builds gradually into a really fucked up finish, which I guess is Ti West’s basic style of filmmaking. It’s interesting for its showing-but-not-telling kind of approach, dropping hints as to what is really going on in the commune but rarely coming and saying it. The supporting cast is excellent, with the creepy-charismatic Gene Jones and the incredibly versatile Amy Seimetz. I thought the main characters were all kind of boring though, like there’s nothing memorable about them. They’re just these regular kinda bro-y white dudes, and I wasn’t especially invested in their plight. But the story surrounding them is engaging enough that I would recommend the movie as a whole. The final sequence is some intense shit, my god.

 

mood-indigo

The closing film of the festival was Mood Indigo, Michel Gondry’s latest feature. Based on the novel by Boris Vian, the movie focuses on Colin (Romain Duris), an independently wealthy layabout who coasts by on charm and magical realism. He meets and immediately falls for Chloé (Audrey Tatou), and they marry after six months together. They have a grand time living, hanging out with Colin’s multi-talented lawyer-chef Nicolas (Omar Sy) and other eccentric friends, but then Chloé contracts a mysterious illness and things take a turn. The film progresses steadily from a light-hearted romantic comedy into a hopeless tragedy, with the colors literally sapped away by the final scenes.

I’ve always loved Gondry’s visual sensibilities, his techniques and special effects and sheer imagination are just wonderful, so I’m always happy to see one of his narrative features on a big screen. Mood Indigo is whimsical as fuck, incorporating all kinds of weird cutesy effects- including stop motion animation, time lapse, forced perspective, and color shifts. I loved the bizarre lecture with enigmatic writer Partre, the animated food, the behind-the-scenes typists who wrote Colin’s story, the encroaching fungal growth that filled the house as Chloé’s illness worsened. I could tell its tonal switch didn’t work for a lot of the audience, who were surprised and confused by the totally downer ending. I had been warned it was a really sad movie so I was ready for it. I didn’t mind the shift so much, because to me it was an interesting experiment in style- we know how Gondry’s whimsical point of view can give us comedy and romance, but how does it reflect tragedy? How do these magical, saccharine elements work themselves into a sadder story? What did bother me was how shallow the whole affair felt, how little we actually know about these characters, and yet we’re supposedly meant to care about them and their problems by the end. It’s not like I hated it, but I enjoyed it almost purely on a visual level, recognizing that the story itself was barely there if you stripped away the stylish narrative techniques.

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