There are fewer competing features in this year's festival, largely owing to the fact that the aggressive acquisition approach of the past two years – that snagged us such titles as Blood Car, Sita Sings the Blues and Bart Got a Room – was not taken this year. The natural result of that was fewer quality submissions, meaning that this year there are only eight competition entries in the final lineup.
Having spent a large chunk of a weekend going through the eight entries, I'm pleasantly surprised to be able to say that some worthy contenders made their way to us. Equally important is the fact that we have a pretty strong breakdown in terms of the type of movies on display, meaning that there's something here for almost everyone. We have a coming-of-age romantic comedy, 16 to Life; a faux double feature of horror pictures, Dark Room Theater; a post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure, Deadland; a multi-character "experimental" drama, In/significant Others; an oddball mystery, War Stories; an even odder mystery, The Twenty; buddy comedy Laid Off; and (God save us) a mockumentary, Solid Country Gold.
I'm not saying that all of these are great films, but there are a few good ones in there and a couple more that are at the very least interesting.
Judging by the opening and closing films, both of which are coming-of-age stories, it looks like "coming-of-age" provides the overall theme of this year's festival, making 16 to Life a good selection. It's also a good movie. Written and directed by Becky Smith (TV helmer of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy), the film drops in on Kate (TV actress Hallee Hirsh) on her 16th birthday, which she spends working her job at a seasonal fast-food stand at a summer resort. Kate has a secret – she's never been kissed – and it causes her personal embarrassment, especially since her co-worker friend, Darby (TV actress Mandy Musgrave), has just made plans to lose her virginity. It's a sweet-tempered, yet savvy little film that also benefits from having Hollywood veteran Theresa Russell in the cast. Be prepared for several delightful surprises along the way.
No film festival is complete without some kind of horror-film entry, and to this end, we have Benjamin Pollack's Dark Room Theater, a comedic horror double-feature that's presented in the fashion of an old "Shock Theater" presentation – complete with a horror host (in this case, a disembodied brain voiced by the filmmaker). The two stories are more in the realm of Twilight Zone episodes than outright horror films, meaning that both have twist endings – neither of which are that twisty. The second feature is the stronger and more creatively made, but both have their merits.
A real surprise was Damon O'Steen's Deadland. I don't usually care very much for post-apocalyptic thrillers, and I'm even more skeptical of indie films where the writer (Gary Weeks) is also the star, but this is a solid movie with effective direction and some very good performances. The film also benefits greatly from a screenplay that manages to keep the film moving forward at a good clip – and actually makes you want to know what's going to happen. An excellent example of how to make a good movie for very little money, Deadland effectively creates a post-apocalyptic world without access to much in the way of special effects. There's also a terrific scene featuring William Katt (yes, you do remember him – he was Carrie's prom date in Carrie) as a more-than-slightly-loony genius living a hermitic existence (apart from his imaginary friend) in the woods. This one is definitely worth a look – and a listen, because Patrick Morganelli's heavily Bartók-influenced score was the best I heard in any of the entries.
At 114 minutes, Lee M. Whitman's War Stories is a good bit too long. It also has a time line that doesn't quite add up, an ultimately preposterous story and a few dodgy performances (mostly from minor characters). But that preposterous story is fascinating in its construction – even if it occasionally cheats – and manages to keep your interest even when the film falls shy of its goals. The young leads are very good, and the film manages to make one of them gay without recourse to stereotype of any kind. Plus, Whitman's direction is very assured and stylish – this is almost certainly the most effectively stylish film in the batch. He has a good eye for camera placement and movement and the scene where the main character goes to Oklahoma City to hopefully solve the mystery of his father's death is a stunner in its buildup.
Also stylish, though not effectively so, is Chopper Bernet's The Twenty. Its story involving an alcoholic (Bernet) who becomes so fixated on a message—an accusation of a crime actually—written on a $20 bill is strong once it gets going. The acting is good throughout and Bernet stages and shoots some effective scenes. There's an especially good one where the main character jumps ahead in his mind to what is about to happen before it does. Unfortunately, Bernet got too jazzed up on post-production effects and decided to make his strange tale stranger still by manipulating the action so that everything is in a jerky, halting movement. It might have worked for a scene or two, but spreading this gimmick over the entire film was just too much. It's a pity, too, because large chunks of The Twenty are very good.
Style of a different sort is on display in John Schwert's In/significant Others with its more or less experimental story line that interweaves fake documentary footage supposedly shot by some public-access TV videographers into the fabric of the film. It then makes this even more complicated by making the public-access guys participating characters in the story as it turns out. That almost certainly sounds more heavily textured – and possibly confusing – than it is. Unfortunately, that structure is far and away the most effective aspect of the movie. The multi-story approach doesn't always work, and the film has a forced indie feel to a lot of it – right down to one of those musical scores that mostly consists of someone noodling on a piano. Overall, what we end up with is a film that's more interesting than effective.
That leaves us with John Launchi's Laid Off and Ronnie Gunter's Solid Country Gold. The former is a buddy comedy that benefits from pleasant performers and an interesting turnaround at the midpoint, concerning which of the two central buddies is the more responsible one. Unfortunately, that turnaround goes too far, resulting in an almost incomprehensible change in the previously more balanced character. Worse, it requires the character to turn into an unfunny, unpleasant and unlikable stoner/drunk for so long that it's hard to reclaim any sympathy generated in the earlier part of the movie.
Solid Country Gold is a mockumentary about an astonishingly bad country music band. It's broad, it's shrill, and, well, it's a mockumentary, which is the lowest form of comic filmmaking as far as I'm concerned. I'll put this one on the basis that if you like this particular sub-genre, you may like this. It's not the worst example I've seen.
Yes, it's certainly a pared-down selection when put up against last year's 14 competition films, but there are still films showing that are worthy of your moviegoing attention.