Attending a film festival—or any festival for that matter—is a struggle of decision. Go ahead: Draft a schedule for yourself. Make a plan of attack. None of it matters. You’re inevitably going to miss out on something. That’s fest life: You have to make your selections count.
This is, perhaps, doubly true for Independent Film Festival Boston, an eight-day event that spans four locations spread throughout the Greater Boston Area, and which, in 2016, is more robust in stature than it ever has been. Proceedings kicked off April 27th at the Somerville Theater in Davis Square, and from there split between the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square and UMass Boston before swapping to the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline for the festival’s final two days of wanton moviegoing. As major metropolitan locales go, Boston is positively miniature, and yet you’ll wind up exhausted within mere hours of bouncing back and forth from one spot on the festival’s daily agenda to the next, desperate to guarantee your own presence at every premiere, panel, party and presentation possible. (Don’t forget that you also need food to live. Eating is important.)
So you make your choices and gird yourself against the heartache of sacrifice. Au revoir, Lo & Behold, Reveries of the Connected World: You coincide too closely with Kate Plays Christine. See you later, The Alchemist’s Cookbook: February, now glaringly retitled The Blackcoat’s Daughter, goes on at the Brattle while you run at the Somerville Theater. So it goes. The more you pay attention to the wacky world of movie distribution, the better you get at figuring out which movies are sure to make wider theatrical rounds and which ones will enjoy only limited runs (if they even receive distribution at all). A24 snapped up Morris From America right after its debut at Sundance, so it will be back. Sophia Takal’s Always Shine, meanwhile, is still patiently waiting on the market.
All this talk of consideration and culling ties back to the theme of IFFBoston’s 14th annual filmic bash: "Make it yours." It’s a directive, or perhaps a gentle suggestion. Determine which movies sound the most up your alley. Find the names of filmmakers, writers and actors that you’re most intrigued by or fond of. Identify the stories and ideas that have the strongest resonance with you on paper. You can’t waste a moment seeing movies that don’t appeal to you, though it must be said that it is often the movies we expect to vibe with the least that impact us the most and stay with us the longest. Remember: The team of directors, coordinators, writers, editors, volunteers and managers that comprise IFFBoston’s ruling body don’t whoop their own asses year-round for their sole benefit. They do it for the audience.
Grant that you could apply the "make it yours" motif to most festivals, the phrase a literal stating of an automatic, subconscious act. But for 2016, the folks at IFFBoston elected to draw attention to that act by ushering it to the forefront of the ceremony. By doing so, "make it yours" becomes a topic of conversation unto itself, and the coin flips we all throw to nail down our moviegoing activities assume new significance.
It turns into a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Everyone becomes the storyteller of their IFFBoston experience, and from one person to the next, patterns emerge among the seemingly unrelated entries on the festival’s line-up. Notable for anyone left disappointed by Cannes’ male-dominant 2016 bill is the emphasis on women sitting in the director’s chair. Among many others, Takal’s Always Shine joined Maris Curran’s Five Nights in Maine, Claire Carre’s Embers, Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, the collaborative efforts of Lauren Wolkstein, Josephine Decker, Lily Baldwin, and Frances Bodomo on omnibus joint Collective: Unconscious, Kim A. Snyder’s Newtown, Nanfu Wang’s Hooligan Sparrow, Amanda Micheli’s Haveababy, Shaleece Haas’ Real Boy, Mustang co-writer Alice Winocour’s Disorder, and Clea Duvall’s The Intervention, which closed out the festival. Running alongside these films are a handful of titles focused on female stories, including Kate Plays Christine and Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow.
There’s something exciting and even a little validating about a festival of a smaller scale than Cannes doing more work to recognize women’s voices in filmmaking. But that’s an observation made from a macro perspective, and there’s more that links each of these films, and so many others, together than gender lines. Always Shine, for instance, is a story by a woman that is about women, but the particulars of the bitter jealousies and psychological curveballs that shape the film tend toward the universal. Actresses and BFFs Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) and Anna (Mackenzie Davis) live in L.A. and enjoy varying degrees of career success: Beth is successful, such as you can call anyone catching lead roles in shitty horror movies a success, while Anna is struggling. If you can imagine, Beth’s accomplishments have driven a wedge between her and friend, and so they take a jaunt to Big Sur to reconnect and make peace.
It’s a good plan on paper and a disaster in practice. We feel the friction immediately when the pair are on screen together for the first time. It isn’t hatred, and strictly speaking it isn’t envy, either. It’s hurt. Beth’s rising star stings Anna, especially when life finds ways to rub Beth’s visibility in Anna’s face: They stop for a bite at a cafe where a fan, recognizing Beth from afar, interrupts their conversation to score an autograph and to unwittingly cut Anna by asking her to take a photo of admirer and admired together. Later, at a restaurant in Big Sur, an older gentleman sits down with Beth and Anna and buys them drinks. Anna, easily the more forward of the two, all but invites the guy into her bed, noting aloud her preference for guys with a little "salt and pepper," but when Beth excuses herself from the table, he follows her and gets her digits while Anna looks on. Her moue says it all. Takal can’t dig that knife in deep enough.
begins with expressions of oblivious misogyny—we first meet Beth at a casting call led by douchebags, and Anna in a heated exchange with her mechanic—but hinges on the unspoken grudges that blossom between friends, and between women specifically, though the text’s undercurrent of resentment eventually erupts into mind-bending horror. Imagine Robert Altman’s 3 Women as directed by Brian De Palma, and you pretty much have it: Takal builds a palpable sense of danger piece by piece as we travel further and further away from civilization, and civilized behavior, with Beth and Anna. Disingenuous social etiquettes dissolve into open hostility, which then dissolves into something far weirder.
If there’s a problem with the film, it’s assurance. Takal has great chops as a filmmaker, and she is adept at working with her actresses, who turn in stellar performances while demonstrating impressive talents of mimicry. For whatever reason, though, Takal feels at times compelled to splice frames of what’s to come among her set-up. Undistinguished scuffles sans context flash across the screen as we watch Anna and Beth motoring along the coast toward their ultimate destination. These gestures are jarring and needless: FitzGerald and Davis establish tension just by acting, and the hyperactive spurts of editing disrupt that tension with shock for shock’s sake. These displays of indecision are brief and sporadic, and the movie is so good besides, that holding them against Takal would be nearly as petty as Anna’s spats with Beth.
A handful of threads running through Always Shine can be applied elsewhere among the IFFBoston program. It is concerned with the male gaze, the degrees of casual sexist horseshit actresses put up with just to secure work for themselves, and with the uncomfortable sensation of being invisible when you’re out with your friends. At one end of the spectrum, Kate Plays Christine explores the first two angles. At the other end, Jeff Grace’s Folk Hero & Funny Guy deals with the third. Remarkably, Grace’s film transplants that idea to a story about dudes on a road trip. On paper, the exercise sounds so quirky as to induce eye rolling: Stand-up comic Paul (Girls’ Alex Karpovsky) bumps into his old childhood pal, Jason (Everybody Wants Some!!’s Wyatt Russell), an up and coming singer-songwriter. Jason decides to hire Paul as the opening act for his solo tour.
Hijinx ensue as they take their journey of self-discovery through America. It sounds cliché; it is cliché. But it’s also earnest, even heartfelt—and above all else it’s fucking hilarious. Karpovsky has an easy, hangdog humanity that softens the pricklier edges of the characters he tends to play. We can imagine Paul as insufferable in the hands of a Jason Schwartzman type, somebody with an acting style that comes close to projecting smug narcissism. Life sucks for Paul. He gets to be a grouch about it. We don’t excuse him for his disparaging wisecracks, though. We just accept them as part of who he is and where he’s at. It helps that Russell is all smiles and free flowing charisma, and that the duo have instant screen chemistry. Damned if they aren’t best buds outside of Grace’s film.
Such is their chumminess that we want more of them, even after Grace takes Folk Hero & Funny Guy to bleaker places than we might anticipate. As with Always Shine, it begins quietly enough, with Paul routinely finding himself ignored in Jason’s presence or booed in his shadow. The audiences they play to from town to town don’t cotton well to Paul’s abrasive and unsparing sense of humor, though he does himself no favors by recycling shitty jokes about evites that were already past their expiration dates in 2001. When he isn’t drawing silence with his act, Paul busies himself watching Jason effortlessly win adulation and adoration alike, and resigns himself to being a nonentity in Jason’s presence as he yaks with groupies. (Jason, at least, has the good grace to point his fans toward Paul, though their attentions never stray too far from the original object of their affections.)
It’s a painful routine to watch, but Grace knows how to cut through it with laughter. It can’t be overstressed just how funny Folk Hero & Funny Guy is. There’s a riotous sequence with Heather Morris partway through the film that feels like a masterclass in awkward slapstick (and which thus should be seen and not simply read about). But the best surprise of all is the film’s restraint. A lesser venture would be too willing to clean up the mess Paul and Jason make of their friendship. Folk Hero & Funny Guy keeps its loose ends more or less intact. We know where the film is going, but by design it never quite gets there. By contrast, Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine arrives at the precise conclusion we expect. It’s just that when we get there, we end up feeling guilty and complicit.
The first thing that should be said of Kate Plays Christine is that it marks Kate Lyn Sheil’s finest hour. Sheil has made her name starring in indier-than-thou films, ranging from the works of Alex Ross Perry to the underloved The Heart Machine, as well as series like Netflix’s House of Cards. These, of course, are works of fiction, whereas Kate Plays Christine is ostensibly a documentary, but Greene gives Sheil so much room to operate and puts so much of the burden of driving the film on her that her role feels like performance. She is star, subject and researcher all at once, an actress peeling back the layers of her process as she prepares for the grimmest role of her career. The film’s blend of reproduction, investigation and vérité does not blur the line delineating fiction and nonfiction as much as it erases it.
Greene’s film isn’t built to the same code as other docs: Instead of doing the legwork chronicling the life and death of Christine Chubbuck himself, he hired Sheil to do it for him, as well as to portray Christine in a reenactment of her 1974 on-air suicide. Not a documentary as we typically imagine one, it is documentary-cum-dramaturgy. By its very being the movie challenges notions of what it means to document. That can’t be helped. You don’t bend your documentary around the reflective presence of an actor if you don’t mean to tinker with the mechanisms of non-fiction, after all.
But there’s more to the film than categorical subversion. There’s the reenactment itself, interspersed through Kate Plays Christine as Sheil slowly transforms herself into Chubbuck on interior and exterior planes. Appointments at spray tan booths are just as integral to Sheil’s study as her one-on-one time with people who knew Christine personally. Then there’s Greene’s scrutiny of media sensationalism, made in tandem with a delve into Chubbuck’s psychological hardships (and thus into the psychological hardships of everyone enduring psychological hardships of their own), plus a quick but compelling look at American gun control laws on the side. Finally, of course, there is the film’s grand finale, in which Sheil’s efforts to become Chubbuck come full circle, and suddenly we’re not sure what, exactly, we’re watching anymore. We just know that we feel complicit, and very, very guilty.
Guilt plays a factor in Under the Shadow, one of the talked-up horror films to come out of last January’s Sundance Film Festival. Mother’s guilt, similar to that of another Sundance horror gem, The Babadook is not necessarily felt by Under the Shadow’s protagonist as much as it is inflicted (and then felt). Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is the sole caretaker of her daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), in the absence of her husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), a doctor who has been ordered to serve at the frontlines of battle. Before Iraj leaves, Shideh’s motherly qualifications are called into question. Once he’s gone, they’re put to the test by the circumstances of her life, whether of this world or altogether otherworldly.
Context matters: Under the Shadow takes place in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War. Before the events of the film, Shideh actively participated in liberal protestation during the Iranian Revolution, and by consequence she is barred from renewed pursuit of her own medical career. Like Kate, like Anna, like Beth, Shideh is subject to masculine power and to the constrictions of institutional sexism. Unlike them, she has to hustle her kid to the basement of her apartment building on the daily to avoid death by motherfucking missile, and to top it all off, there’s the matter of the goddamn jinn dicking around in her home after dark. As if life isn’t bad enough without the nocturnal shenanigans of supernatural fiends.
Under the Shadow will make you consider sleeping without bedsheets for a good long while. If Salman Rushdie sees the jinn as dangerous but ultimately fallible by their own caprice, Babak Anvari sees them as nothing short of diabolical. If the babadook is something you must eventually learn to coexist with, the jinn is something you have to outwit and cast off.
Mainstream horror conditions us to expect the real terror to follow a red herring. Under the Shadow sneaks by our habituations with deceit. Anvari uses cinematographer Kit Fraser’s camera to give us cause to question what we and Shideh see: The ceiling buckles behind her back, breezy gusts caress the taped-up windows of her living room, and we start to wonder whether we would prefer to contend with ghosts or ordnance if we were in her shoes.
Against all expectation, Under the Shadow rarely feels politicized, though you cannot make a movie with this exact backdrop and completely scrub it of its politics. (See: Any scene where Shideh goes out in public and dons her chador.) For a better example of a non-political political film, see The Fits, a movie that is as ineffable as it is incredible. Sure, it’s easy enough to nail down what the film is about: The story is set in a community center in Cincinnati, where young Toni (Royalty Hightower in a commanding performance) lifts and boxes while quietly watching the local dance squad practice their routines. She wants to make a lateral move from pumping iron to busting moves. Toni isn’t much of a dancer, but that’s only a problem for people with no grit. The real trouble here is that the older girls on the squad keep falling mysteriously ill, choking and seizing in the middle of rehearsal without warning.
There’s a lot to unpack from Anna Rose Holmer’s film, which is astounding given that it doesn’t even clock in at eighty minutes in length. Don’t expect to walk out of the theater with all of Holmer’s messages unpacked, though: There is a density to The Fits that compliments its slim running time, and she conveys a surplus of ideas through the assertiveness of her craft. Is this a movie about the Flint water crisis? Is it about straddling social lines in the existential struggle to determine one’s being? Is it, in so many varied ways, about how black lives do, in fact, matter? Or is it just about Toni’s coming of age, with the spreading plague of convulsions acting as a metaphor for girls transitioning into womanhood? As befits IFFBoston’s mien, The Fits is what you make of it and, by extension, more.
One of the joys of festivals is that they present opportunities for adventurous viewers and hungry cinephiles to find something new. The Fits is new. Sit down to suss out the film’s themes with your friends and you’re bound to trace its influences to any number of sources: Holmer has the formalist chops of Kelly Reichardt, the unmoored camerawork of Terrence Malick, the dreamy surreality of David Robert Mitchell and a way with her young cast members that is second to none even among her fellow IFFBoston submitters, like Ira Sachs, whose latest film, Little Men, explores travails of childhood through another lens. The Fits paints a picture of life as it is and as it should be for Holmer’s characters, ending by cutting back and forth from scenes of magical realism to decidedly hopeful sequences of bobbing celebration. The divide between these images is heartrending. We may not fully grasp what has happened to these kids, but we know that we want them to be OK.
Sachs wants that for his two main characters as well, but he takes a different approach to the depiction of their lives. We see the world through the eyes of young Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) and Tony Calvelli (Michael Barbieri) while maintaining an overhead view of what the world is really like. It’s about the perspective of kids pitted against the perspective of adults. Sachs is an abidingly human filmmaker, a guy who mines deep compassion for his characters regardless of who they are or what actions they take, and Little Men walks a tightrope in which any false step would threaten to cast the film’s grown-up characters as heroes and villains. Jake and Tony meet and become instant buds at Jake’s grandfather’s funeral. Grandpa, it seems, has left possession of his Brooklyn digs to Jake’s parents, Brian and Kathy (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle, both terrific). Tony’s mom, Leonor (the great Paulina Garcia), runs a dress shop beneath the apartment, and has done for years. Seems like the start of a beautiful friendship for the boys.
But hey, forget it: It’s Brooklyn. Grandpa never raised Leonor’s rent for as long as he lived, and now that he’s out of the way, Brian, Kathy and Brian’s sister conclude that it’s high time their tenant start paying for what the space is worth in 2016. You can see where this might create a rift between Jake and Tony. In truth, they’re the most adult people in the room. Rather than side with their families, they side with each other. As Hightower is in The Fits, Taplitz and Barbieri are the soul of Little Men, fonts of innocence and empathy, untainted by the harsher realities of mortgages and bills. The film is about gentrification, but that dirty word is never articulated aloud, which helps preserve Sachs’ central belief that each of these characters is motivated for a reason, and that each of those reasons is amoral by nature. No one is out to get the other guy. There is no malice here. There are just people trying to protect themselves, because that’s what people do.
Whether intentional or not, there is a real-world fantasy element to Little Men and its tale of class gaps and gentrified New York City. Part of that lies in the trappings of Jake’s and Tony’s common interests, video games and Percy Jackson chief among them. But the greater part of the film’s sense of reverie is to the credit of cinematographer Óscar Durán, who Sachs should hire to shoot every movie that he makes forever. There is a simplicity to Durán’s execution, and yet the film’s technical element is anything but simple. The trick to minimalist aesthetic is that the more you strip down your style, the less room remains for flaws and fuck-ups, of which Little Men contains none. Durán captures Sachs’ vision of Brooklyn with elegant ease, turning moments where naught happens and all dialogue is extemporaneous into tone poetry. We feel like we’re being swept along by the film’s fluid tempo.
The specificity of place sets Little Men’s urban journeys apart from the festival’s other noteworthy male coming of age yarn, Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, such that the vast differences between their storytelling modes must be stressed to avoid making too direct a comparison. Little Men unfolds against backdrops of brick and concrete, while Hunt for the Wilderpeople unfolds in the bush in New Zealand. But if Jake and Tony inhabit a world apart from Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), they share in common the same adolescent woes: parental neglect and the overwhelming feeling that the custodians of their very existences don’t give much of a shit about them.
That’s truer for Ricky than either Jake or Tony, at least at first. He’s been bouncing around in New Zealand’s child welfare system for a long time, hurtling alone through his days as he acts out, causes problems and gets reshuffled from one new family to the next. When he is brought out to the country to live with Bella and Hec (Rima Te Wiata and Sam Neill), he seems to have finally found his forever home: Bella showers love upon him while Hec, a grouchy old codger, is gracious enough to pretend to tolerate the boy’s presence. Then Bella dies in the blink of an eye, Ricky is promised to return to the clutches of his social worker and Hec just resigns himself to isolation. Ricky ain’t having it, though. He runs away into the bush. Hec follows suit. The child welfare folks assume that Hec has kidnapped Ricky, and thus begins a wacky manhunt for Ricky and for catharsis.
Having abandoned the found footage bent of his last film, 2015’s excellent What We Do in the Shadows, the director has married the controlled and precise methodologies of Wes Anderson with the snappy brio of Edgar Wright. Waititi is a genre hound—you can sense it in every one of Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s frames. This is a very polished film, despite being a bit loose in its midsection: From start to finish, it brims over with elevated technique. But Waititi isn’t so refined that he can’t have fun; Neill especially relishes every second he’s on screen, but Dennison comes a close second. They’re a charming pair, Hec the cantankerous bear, Ricky the loquacious and precocious fish out of water. By the time the film ends you can’t wait to see what quest they undertake next, and you’ve laughed so hard and wept so much that you can hardly tell where joy begins to mingle with grief.
For a crowd-pleasing comic romp, Hunt for the Wilderpeople possesses a profound understanding of where bereavement and self-realization intersect. At times, the movie is acutely doleful. At others, it’s wrenching. More often than not, it is primed to send us into hysterics. Hunt for the Wilderpeople measures out more in favor of comedy than tragedy, but it is proof that a spoonful of gloom makes elation all the sweeter.
That’s a lesson that would have benefitted Clea DuVall’s The Intervention, a very solid comedy that crumbles in its final half hour. In Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Waititi resolves his protagonists’ disputes throughout the whole of the text. In The Intervention, resolution is left until the very end, and the dilemmas that demand said resolution are the messy kind that take more time than they get. We see Waititi tie things up carefully and deliberately throughout his film. DuVall puts a bow on her film at the last second without acknowledging that nothing is actually settled: The cast is left in process, with much work to be done and only the promise of betterment to satisfy our cravings for a clean outcome.
The good news is that the rest of the film works, even if the climax doesn’t. DuVall serves as writer, director and star, one among many, and she handles her three-pronged role with real agility. Maybe when you have a collection of actors as good as the one DuVall has assembled here, it’s easy to wear three hats at once. She’s joined by Jason Ritter, Ben Schwartz, Vincent Piazza, Alia Shawkat, Natasha Lyonne, and especially Cobie Smulders and Melanie Lynskey, who have rarely been better. Connecting the dots from person to person to establish who is shacked up with who is a lengthy endeavor, but suffice it to say that everyone here is coupled, and that the film begins as all four couples arrive at the family home of Jessie (DuVall) down in Savannah for a weekend of fun and reconnection.
Except it isn’t: It’s about everybody confronting married duo Ruby (Smulders) and Peter (Piazza) about the state of their matrimony, which is about as stable as the Republican Party. It’s the old bait and switch, and boy, does the intervention plan go way off the rails and chap the collective asses of everyone in the house.
As a closer for the festival, The Intervention is all but perfect: Even if it could have used a rework in its final moments, the film hits on a handful of the narrative filaments woven throughout IFFBoston’s fabric, from the embarrassment of not being seen (a’la Always Shine and Folk Hero & Funny Guy) to the fault lines that split families apart (as in Little Men), while also putting a declarative punctuation mark on the fest’s commitment to showcasing women behind (and in front of) the camera.
Most importantly, The Intervention sent us all out on a high note. If it is a flawed movie, it is undoubtedly an entertaining movie too, never more so than when Lynskey is plotting and conniving her way around dealing with the monkey on her back. DuVall flips from screwball antics to talky adult humor, staging dinner table chats of squirming discomfort in one moment, and shower wrestling matches in another. As far as endings go, The Intervention is a good ending: Whether you saw movies about malevolent spirits and bloody war, or relationships gone awry, or the sudden and unexpected push from childhood into adulthood, or the devastating effects of the male gaze when blended with loneliness, you saw them your way, tailored to match the unique standards that make you who you are as a filmgoer.
That’s what makes Independent Film Festival Boston such a thrill every year: It’s yours. It’s ours. It isn’t beholden to the airs of industry masquerading. Pretense doesn’t fly here. (For evidence of that, just look at how well loved Mark Wahlberg is among the city’s devoted cineastes.) Like the movies themselves, the festival belongs to the audience. And that’s exactly how it should be.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Movie Mezzanine and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.