Robots, like film festivals, comprise whatever spare parts the craftsman has at their disposal. Gears for eyes, nuts and bolts for arms, a tin bucket for a torso for robots; films from Alex Ross Perry, Jennifer Kent, Lulu Wang, Riley Stearns, Paolo Sorrentino, Julius Onah, Daniel Scheinert, Nanfu Wang, Justin Chon and Lynn Shelton among countless others for festivals. So goes the ingenious pairing of Independent Film Festival Boston’s 17th annual run with its chosen event mascot, an adorably scrappy automaton.
Some of IFFBoston 2019’s parts fit in pleasing disharmony, where movies sharing common surface traits clang against each other in ways that highlight what makes them each work. If they’d screened on the same day, for instance, Perry’s latest, Her Smell, could make a great double feature with Wild Rose, the new film from Tom Harper. (Alas, the former plays Saturday and the latter on Sunday.) Both movies orbit the lives of women laboring in the music industry. Both movies trace redemption arcs for those women across years. Neither’s an especially feel-good experience, but Her Smell is so aggressive, urgent and abrasive, it effectively pares down Wild Rose’s thorns in comparison.
chronicles the fall and rise of Elisabeth Moss’s Becky Something, a Courtney Love surrogate and frontwoman of the punk rock band Something She; Becky talks like a Wonderland character but acts like an uncaged animal. Moss being an actress whose greatest asset is her eyes, and Perry being a filmmaker who fixates on the human gaze, Becky spends the movie staring either at other characters or into the camera. Her eyes burn like toxic twin moons.
The movie’s first three quarters light the match of her self-immolation. In the punk rock world there’s little more stultifying than commercial success; add in a poisonous personality and an enthusiastic drug habit and Becky’s unmaking—by her own hand—is assured. Yet, the film’s final act redeems her, such as Perry’s movies redeem anyone. In contrast to his other work, Her Smell is compassionate, even tender; Becky, later seen sober, washed up and repentant for her years as a monster fed on abusing her ex-husband (Dan Stevens), her bandmates (Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin) and her mother (Virginia Madsen), sings a devastatingly moving cover of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” to her daughter in a moment equally as gentle as it is painful.
Even in the recovery phase, Her Smell delicately walks a perilous tightrope and arrives on the other side as the masterpiece of Perry’s career. Wild Rose, on the other hand, follows an easier redemptive course. It’s familiar. Familiarity isn’t a bad thing, mind, and Wild Rose presents a version of that star-is-born narrative that works in spite of it: Ex-con Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley), fresh out of prison for a drug offense, goes right back to her dreams of country music stardom immediately on her liberation. If the film is distinctly unfamiliar in any way, it’s in the telling of a Glaswegian’s efforts to go to Nashville to get made.
Still, Rose-Lynn tries, and like Becky, she has two children to consider, both raised by her mother, Marion (Julie Walters), currently the only custodian they acknowledge. Rose-Lynn is a stranger to them, and stranger still as she continues her selfish pursuit of her dreams by imploring her new, wealthy employer, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), for support. Susannah eventually acquiesces. Director Harper asks what it means for Rose-Lynn to pursue her ambitions, and he asks more directly than Perry does.
Consequently, Wild Rose is a more easily digested film. But if Moss uses her eyes as a conduit for performance, so does Buckley use her smile. She can write an entire story with just a curve of her lips, upward or downward. She says more with a cocksure smirk than most actors can with an entire script. The film’s structure is comfortable, so Buckley does the heavy lifting on her own and adds in unease to offset its contrivances.
IFFBoston’s midnight section ironically undoes comfort using familiarity itself. Peter Strickland makes decisively unsettling films, notably Berberian Sound Studio, by using weaponizing familiarity: Rather than distance himself from his influences—Dario Argento movies and Euro-kink most of all—he leans into them so heavily that they metastatize into cinema that’s uniquely Strickland’s. Set in the world of high-end retail, In Fabric follows two characters (Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Leo Bill) as they come to possess a cursed dress purchased at Dentley and Soper’s, a department store revealed from the outset to be operated by a coven of witches and warlocks.
In Fabric’s premise reads like either a Tales from the Crypt episode or one of those “award-winning” horror shorts clogging up YouTube. Ultimately, it’s a superior remake of Suspiria to Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 thudding attempt at taking Argento’s blend of lunatic genius and remodeling it for an audience unequipped to appreciate the stuff of the Italian maestro’s filmography. Bleeding mannequins, taboo erotica, an eerily floating dress, truly purple dialogue spoken by frequent Strickland collaborator Fatma Mohamed as one of the witches, trippy aesthetics and unexpectedly side-splitting humor make In Fabric a stand-out entry in contemporary horror at a time when the culture is catching on to what makes the genre function in the first place.
On the subject of genre marrying high art: Here’s Zhang Yimou’s latest, Shadow, a wuxia film based on the Chinese “Three Kingdoms” legend. Where Yimou’s recent filmography either favors substance over dazzle (Coming Home) or dazzle over substance (The Great Wall), Shadow does what the best of his movies do by sewing them together in one seamless package. As in Hero, as in House of Flying Daggers, the anti-gravity fight scenes are stunning to behold, but those movies put performance and action on the same plane, and Shadow deliberately separates them with a gorgeous monochrome palette, backgrounded by gray scale that lets the actors, and the copious amount of blood they spill throughout, hold its forefront. Here, in this tale of palace intrigue, Commander Yu (Deng Chao) employs a double to act in his stead (also Deng Chao)—his shadow, if you will—to seize control of city of strategic value from invading forces against orders from his king (Zheng Kai). The film twists and turns, but through Zhang’s devoted stylization, the intricacies never overwhelm. Instead, the stylization does.
Shadow and In Fabric occupy the same space as programming from festivals past. They’re standard components. Mickey and the Bear, Annabelle Attanasio’s feature debut, repurposes components from last year’s fest; it’s the clear-eyed, grimmer cousin to Never Goin’ Back, likewise a vehicle for Attanasio’s star, Camila Morrone. In both films, Morrone plays a young woman with a powerful need to get the hell out of town and change her circumstances, but Never Goin’ Back is raucous and raunchy, and its lead’s goal is less admirable than that of Mickey and the Bear’s. Mickey is torn between duty to her drug addicted war vet father, Hank (James Badge Dale), and her wish to leave her Montana home and experience the world beyond its border. Funny at times, the film predominantly hinges on Mickey’s bifurcation—she’s Hank’s daughter, but she wants to be her own woman.
Attanasio maintains the balance between each side, finding humor where able, attending somber reality where she must. She saves the darkest for last. The wind-up is gut-punching. But that’s appropriate: A gut punch, after all, is as essential part of a festival as comedy or stark terror—just as sprockets and cogs are essential to a robot.
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.